Thousands facing legal aid bills

28 November 2003
Thousands of people in the UK who were awarded property as a result of free legal aid are facing costly bills.

The Legal Services Commission, which is responsible for administrating legal aid, is writing to 85,000 people with details of how much they owe, the BBC reports.

The letters will go to people who were awarded a share of property as a result of being awarded legal aid.

This rule will apply, for example, to women in divorce cases who are granted half the family home.

Those billed for legal aid will not be expected to pay up if the property in question had not been sold. However, many homes will have been and people will be expected to find the money immediately.

The average bill for aid is expected to be around £2,500 and many of those receiving bills have little idea they now owe money, with some of the cases stretching back 20 years or more. Solicitors do not appear to have explained the system to clients at the time.

"We don't know exactly why people weren't told all those years ago," says Alison MacNair of the Legal Services Commission.

"I'm sure the legal aid administration at the time thought that the person's solicitor would have explained it to them, as they should, and that they didn't need to send reminders."

In cases that took place after 1988, interest will have been added each year.

The Legal Services Commission states that the money earned from calling in the outstanding debts, estimated at about £250 million, will be reinvested in more grants.

Meanwhile, the government is planning a new draft bill to reform the legal aid process and restrict state spending on lawyers.

Under the plans, the Legal Services Commission would take control of legal aid grants from the magistrates' courts, in a bid to save £50 million per year.

Civil rights campaigners claim the move will restrict the ability of members of the public to access legal representation.