The decision by the Westminster Government not to continue with the process of centralising Legal Aid services into regional contracts has been welcomed by campaigners in rural Wales.
In a major u-turn by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove, plans which would have meant taking work away from local solicitors and handing it to a few large companies have been abandoned, along with proposals for further cuts in Legal Aid fees which campaigners claimed would have reduced access to justice for those least able to afford it.
The process was causing particular concern in Dyfed-Powys, where the Government had received insufficient bids to run the service, with local solicitors refusing to apply for contracts on terms which made it unviable to undertake the work. The proposed system had been criticised for reducing access to justice in rural Wales, threatened the long-term viability of local courts, and threatened Welsh-language provision in the justice system.
Dafydd Llywelyn, the former Principal Crime and Intelligence Analyst who is standing as Plaid Cymru’s candidate for Dyfed-Powys Police Commissioner said:
“The proposed changes to criminal Legal Aid would have been a disaster for policing and justice in rural Wales. No wonder everyone involved – from the police to magistrates and solicitors – were furious over the plans. Now, at least, we can move forward in the knowledge that experienced local solicitors will continue to handle Legal Aid cases.
“The whole episode highlights how out of touch the Westminster Government is when it comes to delivering justice in rural Wales. Giving contracts to outside legal firms wouldn’t have saved any money at all in Dyfed-Powys, and would just have led to a worse service and more delays.
“Although this battle has been won, the constant centralisation agenda which we can see from the Westminster Government needs to be fought at every turn. Devolving justice and policing to Wales would be a much more sensible way forward.”
Elin Jones, Plaid Cymru AM for Ceredigion, added;
“This has been a long-running campaign. For two years I have been raising concerns with the UK Government, as have many solicitors and others working within the justice system. There was a real risk that criminal Legal Aid services would have collapsed in Dyfed-Powys, leaving many unable to access justice, and yet more centralization of courts away from our communities.
“I’m pleased that the Westminster Government has been forced into a u-turn. Although the legal system is still under threat of centralization, this is one piece of good news for justice in rural areas, for local solicitors who employ many people in our small towns, and for the status of the Welsh language in the justice system.”