Outcry over legal aid changes
21 Jun 2013 0

Barristers attack plan to award criminal defence work to lowest bidder and deprive defendants of right to choose solicitor. Barristers are campaigning against big cuts to legal aid.

Depriving defendants of the choice of lawyer and introducing price-competitive tendering for legal aid contracts will undermine Britain’s international reputation for upholding justice, the organisation that represents barristers has warned.

Social cohesion will be threatened and those who specialise in criminal defence work will have their livelihoods destroyed by the radical changes being proposed by the Ministry of Justice, the Bar Council has said.

Protests by lawyers and human rights groups are planned for Tuesday afternoon to coincide with the formal closing of the MoJ’s consultation, Transforming Legal Aid, which aims to cut £220m out of criminal legal aid.

Senior QCs such as Geoffrey Robertson and Dinah Rose, as well as leading human rights charities including Liberty, Reprieve Freedom from Torture and Kids Company, are expected to support the demonstration outside the department. It will be at least the third public protest by lawyers against the plans in the past six weeks.

Under the MoJ plans, the cost of judicial reviews will rise steeply, lawyers’ fees will be slashed and criminal legal aid contracts awarded through competitive tendering. Defendants on legal aid will no longer be able to choose their solicitor.

In their strongly worded submission to the consultation, the Bar Council says the government risks “damaging the British justice system, which is renowned worldwide for fairness and impartiality”.

The reforms “will have an adverse impact on access to justice for some of the most vulnerable, deprived, and socially excluded groups, which will have a pernicious consequence in undermining social cohesion”, they say.

The introduction of competitive tendering will “destroy the livelihoods of many smaller solicitors’ firms and rapidly destroy the criminal defence bar”, the organisation warns. Efforts to improve diversity across the legal profession will also be set back “with serious implications for public confidence in the justice system”.

Lawyers are furious that further cuts in legal aid are being imposed on a system that has experienced years of successive reductions in court fees. Suggestions that large elements of the HMCTS (Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service) could be privatised have added to the grievances. A further round of court closures is also anticipated.

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the bar, said: “What is being proposed, so soon after the implementation of the [last round of legal aid cuts], will emasculate legal aid and irreversibly damage the administration of justice in our country which has been the envy of the world.”

“There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all. Price-competitive tendering may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer.”

“Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no government should be proud.”

“The proposals simply do not have a sufficient evidence base on which to attract support. We believe that if these proposals are implemented as they stand, the system will go very badly wrong. Once implemented these measures cannot be easily reversed.”

Former appeal court judge Sir Anthony Hooper told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the proposals “would eliminate choice altogether” and damage quality. The system would lead to what he called government-allocated providers representing vulnerable defendants, including those who may be mentally ill.

Specialist firms of solicitors who represented war veterans who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, would “probably disappear off the face of the earth” while someone arrested in a city such as Norwich on a complex fraud case would no longer be able to call on an expert in the area from London, Manchester or elsewhere.

But Conservative MP and barrister Bob Neill called for “a reality check” on the present arrangements, saying the justice system could not to be expected to escape reductions in expenditure. The present legal aid system cost £2.1bn a year, he said, insisting the proposals would continue to ensure fair access to justice.

“I don’t actually think the public reckons it should be paying for repeat offenders going back to their regular solicitors … Some senior lawyers do not understand the public do not believe it is appropriate to have a system which gives a blank cheque.” Plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a guilty or not-guilty plea could lead to defendants coming under pressure to plead guilty, the Bar Standards Board (BSB) warned.

In its response to MoJ consultation, the BSB, which is responsible for regulating barristers in the public interest, says that the price-focused reforms could result in miscarriages of justices.

“Cases where the defendant enters an initial guilty plea are typically shorter and so cheaper than trials to assess guilt,” the BSB says. “Setting the same fee for cases where a defendant pleads guilty and for longer trials may create an incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to plead guilty.”