The Liberal Democrats have vowed to oppose further cuts to legal aid unless it can be proved access to justice will not be restricted.
A motion was passed at the party’s recent conference in Glasgow following the Ministry of Justice’s plans to slash £220m annually by 2018.
The Lib Dem’s stance on the issue could lead to friction within the coalition but is unlikely to scupper the latest MOJ proposals.
The motion called for “proposed changes to criminal or civil legal aid to be stayed pending thorough consultation and scrutiny to ensure there will be no adverse effect upon … access to justice and the availability of local justice”.
The justice minister in charge of legal aid reforms, Lord McNally, a Liberal Democrat, told the conference: “We are in consultation about these changes and … we have listened.
“That consultation will continue. I have been a life long supporter of legal aid … but what is the limit of legal aid has been in debate for more than a decade now and as a minister responsible for the legal aid agency, I have a duty and a responsibility on how £1.9 billion of taxpayers’ money is spent.
“We are entitled to ask the whole system to look at efficiencies to make sure we can get maximum impact from what at the end of this exercise will probably still be the most generous legal aid system in the world at about £1.5bn.”
Julian Huppert, a Liberal Democrat MP, believes legal aid should not just be about financial savings
He said: “The test is about the justice it delivers and the benefits it gives us all.”
A spokesman from the MoJ said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. At a time when everyone is having to tighten their belts we cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is costing too much and has mushroomed into something far bigger than it was intended to be.
“We are clear we must protect everyone’s right to a fair trial, and our proposals would do just that. Lawyers would still be available to anyone needing advice or charged with a crime, just as they are now.”