Lawyers’ anger at delay to legal aid means test reform

Ministry of Justice makes some changes this year but rest to wait until 2026

The Law Society has expressed anger at changes to the legal aid means test being delayed until 2026, which it said “shows the UK government is continuing to refuse to commit resources to the justice system”.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said some changes to the means test would be introduced this year,

In an announcement last week, it said: “Under the first phase of the means test review, the government implemented the new non-means-tested areas of legal aid in August and September 2023.

“However, while detailed work has been undertaken to deliver further reforms, the timeline for implementation will take longer than initially envisaged due to wider competing priorities. The new schemes are now not expected to be fully operational until 2026.”

The new measures which will come into force in England and Wales this year are:

  • General power (civil) to disregard compensation, damages and/or ex-gratia payments for personal harm on a discretionary basis;
  • Mandatory disregard (civil and crime) for modern slavery victim care contract payments;
  • Discretionary disregard (civil and crime) for the victims of overseas terrorism compensation scheme;
  • Disregards (civil) for back-dated welfare benefits and child maintenance payments;
  • Mandatory equity disregard (civil) where a victim of domestic abuse has temporarily left their home;
  • Discretionary disregard (civil and crime) for miscarriage of justice compensation payments made under section 133 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988; and
  • Extending the existing discretionary disregard for Grenfell Tower compensation in the civil legal aid means test to criminal legal aid.

Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Alex Chalk said: “Innocent people who have suffered miscarriages of justice, personal harm or injury will benefit from changes to legal aid means testing coming into effect this year.

“No longer will certain compensation payments make people ineligible for legal aid support and access to justice.”

In response, the Law Society pointed out that the means test has not been updated in line with inflation since 2009, making fewer people eligible for legal aid each year.

President Nick Emmerson said: “The government is displaying a pattern of behaviour of refusing to commit resources to the justice system resulting in unmet legal need.

“They have already acknowledged there are issues with the current means test, leaving ordinary people without access to justice.

“Frequently blamed for the continued delays is the Legal Aid Agency’s antiquated IT systems – which are causing implementation problems. This is itself evidence of the long-term neglect of our justice system.”

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21 Mar 2024

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