WALES/ENGLAND – Minister tells judges to keep out of legal aid disputes

Courts should not intervene in funding disputes where a litigant has already been denied legal aid, the justice minister has said.

Shailesh Vara

Shailesh Vara (pictured) told a committee of MPs this morning that judges should accept the presence of litigants in person and work with them.

His statement was in response to a question during an evidence session of the House of Commons justice committee.

Vara was asked for his opinion on a case handled by Sir James Munby, president of the Family Division, in which the judge said the state must find a way of funding a litigant being taken to court by the state, either through court funds or legal aid.

Munby accused the government of ‘washing its hands’ of the problem.

Vara said he took on board Munby’s comments and that the Ministry of Justice is working with the judiciary to sort out problems associated with litigants in person.

But the minister pointed out that the proportion of family cases where at least one person is unrepresented was 66% before legal aid cuts and has risen only to 74%. Furthermore, courts and judges have enough experience to deal with self-represented people, he suggested.

‘The courts have always managed in difficult circumstances. That is the nature of the courts’ and judges’ job so whatever the circumstances they make sure justice is done. If that means a LiP they have to deal with it – we take the view there are rules by which we are guided.’

Vara was questioned on the evidence given by MoJ permanent secretary Ursula Brennan to the House of Commons public accounts committee last week, in which she suggested that decisions were taken about legal aid reforms without research into the impact.

‘There is a reality that we had to take very urgent action,’ responded the minister.

‘It would have been – in an ideal world – perfect to have a two-year research programme talking to all stakeholders and coming to a decision. Sadly the economic position didn’t allow that luxury.’

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