Legal Aids Cuts in 2014
In scenes that were once unimaginable, we have already seen barristers outside the courts over legal aid cuts. Their arguments are that the proposed cuts could reduce their fees by up to 30% and mean that defendants would have reduced access to representation. Here we will look at these proposed cuts and examine their implications.
What are the legal aid cuts?
Chris Grayling the minister of Justice has announced the intention to cut the fees that are paid to solicitors and barristers and has confirmed that average cuts in criminal legal aid fees will be 17.5% for solicitors and 6% for barristers.
Some of the cuts will be effective from March and the remainder will be staggered over the following year.
Why have they been made?
The cuts will save the exchequer £220 million from the current legal aid bill of £2.1 billion.
In his statement Chris Grayling said “This government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and I have no choice but to look for the savings. I cannot exempt legal aid from this”. He has also assured us that there are no further legal aid cuts in the pipeline.
Are there any upsides to this?
Yes, in a way. Chris Grayling appears to appreciate that the cuts will cause some problems and has provided a few measures to ameliorate them.
He has said that there will be free Wi-Fi and more power sockets available to lawyers so that they can work while they wait for their cases to be called. Legal aid fees will also be paid more promptly to improve cash flow, and companies that apply for duty solicitor contracts will have easier access to bank loans.
The Ministry of Justice has also announced that Lord Justice Leveson will review court processes with the intention of streamlining them by the application of improved technology and reducing the number of pre-trial hearings. This could reduce the cost of court proceedings.
What are the implications of the cuts?
The cuts will have a big impact on defendants, solicitors and barristers.
It will become considerably more difficult for defendants to obtain legal aid. There will be pressure to pursue low cost representation at the expense of high quality representation, with the danger that defendants could find themselves being represented by unqualified lawyers.
Initially it was though that the proposed court fee structures could pressurise innocent defendants to plead guilty, though the risk of this appears to have been mitigated by the Minister of Justice backing down on his original proposal to introduce identical fees for full trials at magistrate’s courts and for guilty cases.
Many critics of the cuts believe that their ramifications include an increased potential for miscarriages of justice along with the loss of public confidence, with vulnerable groups being unable to access legal aid in order to appeal against bad decisions.
The impact on barristers and solicitors are also far reaching. The cuts are likely to mean that many local legal firms around the whole country will disappear. This will mean that much valuable expertise will be lost, for instance it is estimated that the number of duty solicitor contracts will be reduced from 1,600 to 525.
What happens next?
Lawyers are planning to go ahead with further protests which will include a walkout which will majorly disrupt magistrate and crown courts in England and Wales.
Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, responded to the cuts saying “Legal aid is a lifeline to many of the most vulnerable in our society. A civilised society needs a system of legal aid to ensure access to justice for everyone.”
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