Further (indirect) cuts in legal aid are planned – this time to the criminal law sector. Early February saw the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announce plans to impose further legal aid cuts of up to £30 million on the network of criminal defence solicitors.
Under the proposals, the MoJ will reduce payments to lawyers appointed to cross-examine alleged victims of abuse. Those court appointed advocates will see their fees slashed from private rates to legal aid rates. Further changes are to the Litigators Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS); these changes will cut payments for paper-heavy Crown Court cases. The reason given by the MoJ for the latter change is that many more pages of evidence are being served by the CPS now; therefore the average costs per case are increasing.
Needless to state that these changes have not been well received by the legal sector. This is especially as the Law Society commissioned Oxford Economics to examine trends in legal aid expenditure. Having done a report on the same matter in 2014, their latest report, published this year, found that the MoJ is on track to make further savings in the criminal legal aid budget – without the need for any further cuts to payment rates.
Condemning the cuts, the Chairman of the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Committee, James Parry that the new cuts “are unnecessary and ill-timed, given the long term project to reform the litigator fee scheme, which will ultimately remove reliance on the pages of evidence which are creating this problem. The Society will be working with the MoJ on this longer term project and we believe that it is unwise to impose short-term cuts on the scheme before that project has even started.”
Mr Parry went further, setting out the likely impact on firms of criminal solicitors: “The [MoJ] has extensive independent evidence from consultants that demonstrates that solicitors’ businesses cannot afford to absorb further cuts, and there is a substantial risk that these cuts will drive a significant number of firms into insolvency …The firms most likely to bear the brunt of these cuts are the larger firms on whom the government depends to deliver a criminal defence service. The result could be that the government fails to meet its statutory obligations to ensure everyone accused of a crime has representation where required – a fundamental aspect of the rule of law and rights of citizens.”
“We recognise that the MoJ has concerns about the use of paper as a proxy for determining fees in the Crown Court. With so much evidence now being video or data evidence, we have long shared those concerns. This is why we lobbied the Legal Aid Agency to start discussions about revisions to the LGFS to reflect the reality of Crown Court cases today. It is deeply disappointing that the MoJ is making ill-considered ad hoc changes to the scheme when those discussions are ongoing and making good progress.”
Although only indirectly – once again legal aid has seemingly been targeted by the MoJ in what seems to be a mere cost saving measure. A fair trial involving being fairly and adequate represented is an absolute right – and part of the democratic right to obtain access to justice. After legal aid has been cut more and more, and courts closed, these further cuts once again are effectively a denial of justice.
Many lawyers would agree that the criminal justice sector has many faults, and needs reform. Many lawyers also agree that cutting fee payments to defence lawyers is not a reform – but rather a step backwards for justice overall.To quote from Mr Parry’s response, the cuts are “not a rational approach. The Government needs to tackle the problem at source. It cannot keep responding to every change in the criminal justice system by slashing the fees paid to lawyers.”