All Government departments will have to analyse the impact on Legal Aid budgets when proposing new laws in a bid to crack down on soaring costs, Department for Constitutional Affairs minister Bridget Prentice told a Birmingham Legal Aid conference.
In her first public speech since taking the role, at the annual conference of the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group (LAPG) at the Hyatt Regency Hotel, Ms Prentice said the new Legal Aid "impact test" will become part of the normal legislative process.
She said: "The impact of proposed legislation on the Legal Aid budget needs to be thoroughly considered - not as a one-off but in a systematic way, so it becomes a normal part of the way departments do business.
"Following the meeting with LAPG, we've made progress - a Legal Aid impact test will now be part and parcel of the way Government develops policy. When it comes to controlling spiralling demand, prevention is better than cure."
The test will become part of the existing regulatory impact assessment process which Government departments carry out when drawing up new laws. A DCA spokesman yesterday confirmed that the new requirement is already being rolled out across Government departments.
The minister said: "We will need to look closely at how this works, but the addition of a Legal Aid impact test to the regulatory impact assessment is a big step forward.
"The DCA will now be able to suggest alternatives to regulation or obtain commitments from other departments to meet the costs of any new burden on the Legal Aid budget. It will put a check on policies - whether by accident or design - that squeeze the Legal Aid budget." The Government spent £2.1 billion on Legal Aid in 2003-04, nearly £900 million of which went on civil Legal Aid and the remainder on criminal proceedings.
Ms Prentice added: "Legal Aid is absolutely vital to ensure that the dispossessed get access to legal services. Our challenge is to see how to reform to ensure it is fair to those it is intended to help, fair to the tax payer and fair to practitioners.
"It hasn't taken me long to realise that Legal Aid is a difficult and pretty contentious area. Feelings run high and that is why it is important to have debate and deliberation."
She said the Government still believed that Legal Aid was a fundamental and vital aspect of social justice but changes needed to be made to move forward. She criticised barristers threatening to strike over cuts to Legal Aid fees.
She said: "People should not be denied justice because of their inability to pay for it. Since 1949 millions of people have benefited from Legal Aid. I want it to continue to make a difference for the next 50 years.
"So it is all the more regrettable that this week we have seen a fair amount of irresponsible talk about refusing work from the Bar."
Last night nobody from the Birmingham Bar was prepared to comment.