Criminal Legal Aid Changes On Hold

Mon, 09 Mar 2015

Government plans for huge and far reaching cuts to the criminal legal aid system could be stopped in their tracks.

The Court of Appeal has granted permission to enable the Law Society and representative groups to challenge an earlier ruling that would have seen the number of on-call duty solicitors attending police stations and magistrates’ courts cut by more than half.

And a ‘fighting fund’ has been launched to fund the appeal, which is set to be heard on March 10.

The Law Society argues that proposals by justice secretary Chris Grayling, to slash the number of legal aid contracts for lawyers from 1600 to just 527, would lead to law firms folding, inadequate access to legal advice for defendants and an increase in miscarriages of justice.

James Turner, a partner at Tuckers Solicitors and chairman of the Birmingham Law Society’s Criminal Law Committee, said: “The proposals by the Ministry of Justice would devastate the supply base of duty solicitors in England and Wales.

“These far reaching changes would effectively dumb down the quality of work provided by duty solicitors, and actually build in disincentives to firms and individuals being part of the criminal legal aid system.”

The Ministry of Justice says savings must be made in the legal aid system, which, it claims, is inefficient and unsustainable in its current form, with too many providers chasing too little work.

Solicitors originally lost their attempt in London’s High Court to halt the plans, but the Court of Appeal last Friday said that the ruling can be challenged.

The news was welcomed by all tiers of the legal profession.

The Law Society in a statement said: “Legal advice is a fundamental right and not having access to justice has many implications not only for those dedicated legal professionals defending the public but also our society.”

Richard Gibbs, a criminal barrister at No5 Chambers and a member of the Bar Council Law Reform Committee, said: “If these changes are implemented, it cannot be doubted that the impact on criminal solicitors will be massive.

“Already, many firms are operating at the very margins of financial credibility but are managing to still ensure that their clients receive guidance and representation. If their numbers are cut – and these changes will cut them drastically – it will inevitably be the case that those in need of representation simply won’t get it.

“The driver of representation will not be quality but will become cost; that can’t be right. Using cheaper advocates will become financially imperative for firms but that will have a knock on effect on the quality of representation that clients receive; trials will take longer, people will not be properly represented.

“It is impossible to see how that is anything other than a travesty. The Law Society have done a tremendous job in bringing these unfairnesses to light and we at the Bar should do all we can to support them in fighting for our criminal justice system.”

Michelle Heeley, also a criminal barrister at No5, said: “The grant of leave for appeal is excellent news, if the proposed changes to tendering come in it will decimate criminal solicitors, reducing their numbers down to but a few hundred.

“This will have an impact on market choice, leaving many vulnerable clients without the solicitor of their choice. Not only will solicitors suffer but the reduction in the number of firms will mean many Barristers will also potentially be affected, practitioners with many years’ experience will face competition from junior in house advocates as it will be more cost effective for the solicitors, understandably, to use their employed advocates. This will impact on the quality of advocacy available and will be detrimental to the justice system as a whole.

“The Law Society has worked extremely hard and ought to be proud of what has been achieved already, but this is only the beginning of the fight, we must all stand together to resist the assault on our publicly funded work.”

A fighting fund has been launched by the Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA).

Click here to view Richard Gibbs and Michelle Heeley's profile's.

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