The justice secretary Chris Grayling’s long-awaited response to his controversial Transforming Legal Aid consultation on criminal legal aid has been met with a unanimous cry of outrage from the profession.
The reforms outlined in the response include the introduction of an immediate initial cut to solicitors’ fees of 8.75% from 20th March and another 8.75% cut in June 2015. The number of duty solicitor contracts will be cut from around 1600 to just 525. Barristers fees will be cut by an average of 6%, with a 2% reduction for the junior Bar in the Crown Court. Cuts to fees in Very High Costs Cases (VHCCs) remain at 30%.
Announcing the reforms, Grayling said: ‘As everybody knows this government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and I have no choice but to look for the savings I have to make across the full range of the MoJ’s work. I cannot exempt legal aid from this, but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand how challenging these reductions will be.’
‘Legal aid is a vital part of our justice system but we must ensure it is sustainable for those who need it, for those who provide legal services as part of it and for the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it.’
Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) declared yesterday ‘a shameful day in legal and criminal justice history.’ ‘Cutting legal aid fees so that experienced legal aid lawyers are driven out of business leaves clients at the mercy of low-paid, unqualified lawyers – unless of course they are rich enough to afford a private lawyer,’ said Hill.
‘These newly confirmed cuts are a short-cut to a two-tier system, where justice becomes a luxury not a right. This can’t be right for any defendant, whose liberty, family and livelihood are often at stake.’
Nicola Hill, LCCSA president
Hill added that criminal defence lawyers are now ‘more resolved than ever to oppose the implementation of these cuts’. Urging her colleagues to join the march against the cuts on 7 March, Hill said: ‘Criminal defence lawyers can’t stand by and allow the rule of law and the principle of a fair and quality defence for anyone accused of a crime be wrecked in one final blow for justice.’
A disaster for the public
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) was equally vociferous in its reaction to the government’s reforms. ‘The impact of the MoJ proposals is a disaster for the public who will find it increasingly difficult to gain access to a local solicitor willing to provide legal aid in the face of a State funded investigation and prosecution,’ said a statement from the representative body.
The CLSA said the cuts announced by the government ‘fly in the face of the evidence provided by experts and seen by the Government which show that many firms are on a financial knife edge’ and accused the government of ‘failing to listen’ – conducting a sham consultation as a ‘tick box exercise’. ‘The result is the most serious assault upon the ability of the profession to defend the public against the power of the State,’ said the CLSA.
Bar Chairman Nick Lavender QC said that the the Bar is ‘bitterly disappointed’ that the Government is pressing ahead with ‘financially unnecessary’ cuts to criminal legal aid. The criminal justice system ‘will be worse for these changes’, said Lavender, declaring them to be a false economy.
‘Today, our worst fears have been confirmed. Across England and Wales, Criminal barristers, who work hard in the public interest, will be dismayed and demoralised. Regrettably, many skilled and experienced advocates are likely to have to leave criminal practice altogether. The quality of justice will suffer as a result, and the harm done may well be irreparable.’
Nick Lavender QC
Nigel Lithman, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), said the CBA’s initial response to the announcement was one of ‘profound disappointment’. ‘In spite of our considered responses both in meetings and in written submissions, the Minister has chosen fundamentally to ignore us,’ said Lithman. ‘It is simply expected that the Criminal Bar will accept cuts unparalleled in any other sector of the wider community.’
A shocking attack on us all
Franklin Sinclair – the senior partner of one of the UK’s largest criminal firms, Tuckers solicitors – surprised the profession by declaring his support for next week’s day of action in protest against the cuts. ‘On behalf of Tuckers Solicitors I fully endorse the CLSA protocol for the Day of Action,’ said Sinclair. ‘I shall comply with that.’
Sinclair and his firm refused to take part in the profession’s first half-day of action on 6 January, slamming it as ‘a waste of time and possibly counter-productive’.
But responding to yesterday’s announcement, he said: ‘The MoJ response is disgraceful and sadly chaos and carnage will surely follow.’
He continued: ‘The beleaguered and already long-suffering criminal defence suppliers will not be able to withstand an immediate 8.75% cut without at the very least a lowering of the high standards of service the Courts and Police and CPS have come to expect. I only hope that our clients do not suffer from this shocking attack on us all.’
- ‘Using the law to change the law is the most important thing you can do’ - 15th February 2019
- This (young legal aid) life: Mary-Rachel McCabe - 12th September 2016
- Can the rule of law survive without legal aid? - 28th May 2014
- Weekly round-up 10 – 14 March - 14th March 2014
- Des Hudson announces retirement following calls for resignation - 14th March 2014
- Legal aid cuts are ‘harsh’, admits Simon Hughes - 11th March 2014
- ‘Grayling Day’ protest: ‘A day of shame for the Lord Chancellor’ - 7th March 2014
- Sadiq Khan: ‘It’s not as simple as reversing the cuts’ - 4th March 2014
- ‘A shameful day in legal history’: reaction to Transforming Legal Aid - 28th February 2014
- Weekly round-up 24 – 28 February - 28th February 2014