MPs say legal aid changes could breach race laws

LONDON (Reuters) - Government proposals to reform legal aid payments to save 100 million pounds a year could breach anti-discrimination race laws, a committee of MPs said on Tuesday.

The plans to use fewer but larger law firms and move to fixed fees could badly affect black and ethnic minority lawyers and their clients, the Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee said.

“This may limit access to justice for members of ethnic minorities,” the committee said in a review of plans published last July to cut the annual 2.1 billion pound legal aid budget for England and Wales.

It said the reform plans could breach the Race Relations Act, which places a duty on public authorities to promote racial equality, including the promotion of equal opportunities.

The committee said planned minimum contract sizes for legal aid work could amount to unlawful indirect discrimination of ethnic minority-run law firms.

Last week the Society of Asian Lawyers and the Black Solicitors Network launched joint proceedings against the government on the grounds there has not been a full racial impact assessment of the proposed changes.

The committee also criticised plans to stop hourly payments later this year before the introduction of a market-based system in 2009 when law firms will bid to supply legal aid services.

The committee said the move to fixed rates in this transitional period would lead significant cuts in income for many lawyers and force them end legal aid work.

It called for the transitional period to be scrapped and said the move to competitive tendering for legal-aid contracts should be tested in pilot areas first.

“This is about people’s access to advice and to justice, which could be irreversibly damaged if these reforms have the negative effects described in evidence to the committee,” said Liberal Democrat MP Alan Beith, the committee’s chairman.

“It is important that experienced professionals are prepared to stay in the field providing legal aid services for the most vulnerable members of society, such as individuals with mental health problems or children,” he added.

The opposition Conservatives said the proposed reforms were “reckless and ill-thought through”.

“Our network of high street solicitors will be damaged, leaving advice deserts with many vulnerable people unable to access justice close to home,” said Conservative Constitutional Affairs Spokesman Oliver Heald.

Legal Aid Minister Vera Baird said the government took its equality and diversity duties very seriously.

“Making the system work as efficiently as possible will mean we can put more emphasis on civil and family legal aid so we can help as many vulnerable people as possible,” she said.