The Bar Council has welcomed the expansion of legal aid eligibility but expressed concern at the slow pace of change in the face of high inflation, meaning many people are still unable to access justice.
The Government has published its response to the legal aid means test review following a consultation last year. The announcement includes measures to increase access to legal aid for victims of domestic abuse, free legal representation to anyone under 18, and increasing the income thresholds for eligibility for civil and criminal cases in the magistrates’ courts.
The Ministry of Justice press release also announced an end to the ‘innocence tax’ which forces people to pay for a legal defence even if they are found not guilty. However, the report reveals that those who pay privately for their defence and are found not guilty will not be reimbursed, meaning that the innocence tax will continue for some.
Commenting on the announcement, Nick Vineall KC, Chair of the Bar Council, said:
“The extension of legal aid eligibility is welcome as it means fewer people are excluded from access to justice, but these are slow steps of progress. It has already been a year since the proposals were made and we are concerned that the changes announced will now take up to two years to be implemented.
“In the interim, the thresholds have not been increased. We welcome the commitment to review the thresholds in light of the recent high inflation but will continue to call for future increases to be made automatically to keep pace with inflation.
“The changes in relation to victims of domestic abuse are overdue, but particularly welcome. Victims and survivors of domestic abuse should not be subject to a test for legal aid.
“The Bar Council has been calling for the abolition of the ‘innocence tax’ for many years and, while today’s announcement is welcome it will miss out those who pay privately and are found not guilty. We ask the Government to look at these proposals again so that no one is left out of pocket for defending themselves when they are found not guilty.
“Legal aid eligibility is complex and we will consider the full details of announcement. The changes announced today should help some of those who are most in need, but there will still be many unable effectively to vindicate or defend their rights. We urge the Government to bring the changes in swiftly and follow up with further steps to improve the availability of legal aid.”