Much was made by the Scottish Government this week of the extended eligibility for civil legal aid, in force from Tuesday past (7 April).
Upper disposable income limit up from £10,306 to £25,000; 1,000,000 more Scots now qualify, taking in three quarters of the adult population. So ran the press release, the figures being duly picked up by most of the newspapers.
Any extension is of course welcome, and a contrast to the standstill approach (or worse) that has prevailed for many years. But not so many looked at the figures further down the release, on the contributions that will be demanded from those applying.
While those with disposable incomes above £3,355 (the threshold for paying a contribution) will be assessed at a figure equivalent to a third of the excess up to £10,995, the proportion rises to 50% for the next slice of income up to £15,000, and a full 100% on the balance up to £25,000. Thus someone with a disposable income just on the upper limit will be asked for a payment of £14,549 before they get any help from the state. (For someone on £20,000 disposable, the figure would be £9,549, and on £15,000, £4,549.)
Of course in many cases the costs of litigation could substantially exceed even the maximum contribution, and we appreciate the strains on the public finances at present, but a 100% clawback on a full £10,000 income band does seem a bit steep, even on extended payment terms.
Will it do much to halt the decline in takeup of civil legal aid over the past decade and more? That remains to be seen. I trust the statistics will be made available as soon as possible to indicate how many have taken advantage of their new entitlement, and a proper assessment undertaken of whether it has made a substantial difference to people seeking to translate their legal rights into real results.