The Law Society has claimed a victory for families across England and Wales after the High Court quashed the outcome of the tender round for new family legal aid contracts.
On 30 September 2010, the High Court declared that the government Legal Services Commission's (LSC) family legal aid tender round was unlawful and severely hindered access to justice for vulnerable children and their parents.
The decision follows a three-day hearing of the Law Society's application for judicial review at the Divisional Court.
The Society's president, Linda Lee, said that today's win is a victory for the thousands of families who would have been left without access to legal assistance when faced with state intervention in their family or the consequences of the breakdown of a relationship.
Legal action groups and community organisations have also welcomed the outcome.
Ms Lee declared: "The failure of the Legal Services Commission to anticipate, let alone manage, the outcome of the process was the latest and perhaps most alarming of [its] apparently haphazard attempts to reshape legal aid. We are extremely disappointed to have been left with no choice but to take legal action against the LSC, which refused to acknowledge the detrimental effect that this outcome would have on families."
She continued: "The Legal Services Commission's actions would have seen the number of offices where the public could get subsidised help with family cases drastically cut from 2,400 to 1,300. That would have translated into thousands of people facing grave difficulty in obtaining justice – ordinary people who are already facing extraordinary difficulties. Legal aid clients are some of the most vulnerable in society and access to legal representation where required is their only hope of achieving justice."
The Law Society chief said that the Society, which represents solictors in England and Wales, "has always maintained that this wholly unplanned major restructuring of the legal aid market would cause immense uncertainly and instability for many of the poorest and most vulnerable. It is regrettable that the LSC didn't stop to consider the consequences of its actions, before pushing ahead and cutting vital services that clients need and that a civilised society expects to be provided."
"We hope that whatever steps the LSC now takes will see legal aid contracts properly distributed across England and Wales to ensure all families in need have access to justice. I thank the Divisional Court for deliberating speedily on this important judicial review application," Ms Lee concluded.
The Legal Services Commission has consistently refused to listen to pleas from legal experts and family groups on the impact of its tendering programme, and has tried to suggest that lawyers are being resistant to change.
Those involved in delivering civil legal aid have angrily denied such insinuations, and are now celebrating a legal victory which they hope will contribute towards renewed efforts to safeguard justice for vulnerable and low income families.
However, there is concern that the High Court judgement was on largely technical grounds, and that the issues of access and equality were not taken on board. The LSC may attempt to sideline the ruling by merely modifying its procedures, and it is not yet clear whether it will appeal.
The president of the family courts said recently that “you do not need a crystal ball” to see that legal aid for private law proceedings “is likely to be further diminished if not abolished”. Under swingeing cuts, that problem remains.
There are other issues relating to social welfare (housing, debt, welfare benefits, community care) which are the subject of separate judicial review actions against the LSC by individual legal aid firms.
More on this story at the Law Society Gazette: http://www.lawgazette.co.uk/news/law-society-wins-family-tender-challenge
What Price Justice? campaign: www.lawsociety.org.uk/defendinglegalaid