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Last Updated: Monday, 24 September 2007, 10:08 GMT 11:08 UK
Legal aid bill 'highest in world'
by Jackie Storer
Political reporter, BBC News at the Labour conference

Leader of the Commons Jack Straw
Mr Straw says the increase in legal aid spending is 'astonishing'.
The legal aid bill for England and Wales is the highest in the world and it has to come down, Justice Secretary Jack Straw has warned lawyers.

He told a fringe meeting at the Labour Party conference in Bournemouth that legal aid costs had risen from 138m in 1980 to 2.2bn two years ago.

He urged the legal profession to help him find out why England and Wales spends so much more than other nations.

Senior barristers say the rise is down to the range and complexity of cases.

Mr Straw told the Society of Labour Lawyers it could not be right that in England and Wales 34 was spent per head on legal aid, compared with 10 in New Zealand, 7 in the Irish Republic, 4 in Germany, 3 in France and 1 in Sweden.

'Work with me'

He said the "astonishing" increase in the cost of legal aid had also spurred a rise in the numbers of lawyers and their incomes.

Mr Straw stressed that he was "determined to protect the budget of the court service", adding that he had "no intention of raiding" it to pay for legal aid.

But he told the lawyers: "The message I bring out here is that the profession as a whole has got to work with me to find out why our spending is so much greater than other countries - and how we can reduce it."

He said efforts needed to be made to improve processes within the legal system and increase efficiencies to reduce the costs.

Criminal offences

But Stephen Hockman QC, a former chairman of the Bar, said: "Legal aid has increased because of the range and the complexity of the work."

There had been an increased need for legal help for families and a rise in the number of criminal offences, he said.

A number of legal aid lawyers worked "very, very hard on behalf of their clients for remuneration that's many times less" than if they had been working in private practice, he added.


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