What is the interests of justice test? It is simply qualifying the need for a solicitor. For example if you apply for legal aid and there is a pretty good chance you could go to prison due to the seriousness of the case you would usually be given legal aid. Also if your case involved a complex area of law then you may meet the interests of justice test.
The means test is back, but in a new way. Means testing used to exist, but it was abolished because it was believed that means testing was too expensive to actually collect in money that people had to contribute to their legal aid if their income fell between certain levels. I like the idea of means testing, those defendants who can afford to pay for legal services should pay for them. Those Defendants who cannot afford to pay for legal services should qualify for legal aid. The Legal Services Commission has been behind the reintroduction of means testing and they have made a right pigs ear of it.
Here some examples of why applications have been rejected recently:
The form had been filled out in blue ink and not black ink.
The ethnicity part of the form had not been completed to specify the applicants ethnicity
The application of a 12 year old youth had not specified whether or not he had a marital partner
The application submitted before the first hearing did not contain a copy of the applicants previous convictions even though these are not available to defence solicitors until the first hearingMany defence solicitors, including myself, are aggrieved by the attitude of the Legal services Commission over means testing. They have somehow managed to move the job of processing legal aid applications from experienced Court staff to administration staff who have had no experience of the interests of justice test, or have any practical experience of Court work to know how to apply the interests of justice test.
The real problem with the new means testing scheme is that applications for legal aid cannot always be processed on the first hearing when the Defendant appears in Court. For example, my local Court is served by a central administration office. If I want to lodge a legal aid application it has to be sent through the post or document exchange to an office, I then have to wait two days to find out if the application has been granted. Now this all sounds fine until you realise that there are Defendants in Court without time to make an application for legal aid. If I represent a Client for a matter at the Police Station they might appear in Court within 24 hours having been refused bail by the Police - and in these circumstances I cannot ensure that legal aid is in place before the Client appears in Court wanting to be represented. In reality the Legal Services Commission want solicitors to gamble and to guess when legal aid will be granted. There is no way for me to recoup losses (other than ridiculously small fees) if I have spent the vast majority of my time at Court for a Defendant who has been refused bail by the Police and is also refused legal aid several days later!
The Derek Hills of the Legal Services Commission, and Vera Baird QC of the Department for Constitutional Affairs, have shown utter contempt for legally aided defendants over means testing. There are some very real issues such as young defendants remaining in custody for longer than is necessary whilst legal aid applications are resolved. The UK has a record of locking up a higher percentage of the population than other European countries, we also lock up more of our youths. Means testing is adding to this issue. At a meeting on 2nd October 2006 I was told by the head Clerk that if Defendants have to remain locked up in order to process legal aid applications then so be it.
2nd October 2006 was the date for the reintroduction of means testing, it will go down in my diary as Black Monday.