EU to the rescue on legal aid?

first_imgThe government could be forced into ‘a humiliating U-turn’ over plans to cut the legal aid budget, following an EU pledge to set mandatory levels of civil and criminal legal aid for member states from 2013, it was suggested last week. Europe’s commissioner for justice, fundamental rights and citizenship, Viviane Reding (pictured), last week reaffirmed the EU’s intention to broaden the scope of legal aid across all member states. She told a meeting of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe in Brussels that access to justice was a ‘fundamental right’ and that, in line with article 47 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, all governments must make legal aid funding available to litigants and defendants in civil and criminal cases who otherwise could not afford representation. Cultures and economies differ between member states, she added, but she expected to introduce measures setting the standard for universal legal aid in 2013. ‘Governments won’t like it, but they will get used to it,’ Reding said. The Law Society’s head of legal aid policy Richard Miller said the move could threaten the government’s plans for legal aid cuts. He said: ‘The UK government’s proposed cuts to legal aid will put us out of step with the rest of Europe, which is embarking on a programme of broadening access to publicly funded representation, not shrinking it. There is a real danger that the proposed cuts will make us dip below the minimum standards imposed by the EU. We will have to make a humiliating U-turn and drag ourselves back up to an acceptable level.’ Telmo Baltazar, a member of Reding’s cabinet, told delegates that the cost of legal aid had to be set against the cost to governments of miscarriages of justice. He said: ‘More than anything, we need an efficient system of law efficiently administered.’ University of Cologne senior lecturer Matthias Kilian warned that governments should not see legal expenses insurance as a viable substitute for legal aid. ‘It is the first to go when money gets short,’ he said. ‘People put health and their families before abstract notions such as access to justice.’ Meanwhile, a member of the French delegation voiced concerns over the levels of remuneration received by legal aid lawyers across the Channel. He said: ‘French lawyers are willing to die for utopia, but the French government wants us to starve slowly on nine euros an hour.’last_img read more