Speaking at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, the former barrister said that he understood the ‘frustration of the profession’ but that it had been difficult for him to lobby for concessions because most of the cuts were already set in stone when he entered his post at the Ministry of Justice.
‘The decisions taken, unarguably, are harsh ones,’ said Hughes. ‘There will be reductions in pay for members of the Bar and solicitors dealing with legal aid work, and there will be areas of work that now will not have legal aid. Unarguably that’s the case.’
He added: ‘What I have tried to do on arrival was make sure that where there were things that were still open to decision, where I had expressed a view … that I could influence that. It was quite difficult because 99% of the decisions had been made and I didn’t think I wanted to use up all my credibility in fighting battles that had happened before.’
The former barrister told the conference that he had managed to win ‘some concessions in relation to asylum seekers and legal aid, refugees and legal aid, children and legal aid and other vulnerable groups’ which he thought were his ‘priorities as a Liberal Democrat’.
But the reforms introduced by the government will dramatically alter the legal aid landscape – with barristers and solicitors facing average fee cuts of 6% and 17.5% respectively and the number of duty solicitor contracts being slashed from around 1600 to just 525.
‘Where we are now, I absolutely understand the frustration of the profession,’ said Hughes. ’For me the challenge is how we make sure that young people wanting to be lawyers – which is a perfectly reputable thing to do, Nelson Mandela was a lawyer – particularly from poorer backgrounds, particularly from minority groups, but also generally, don’t think that the only law that they can do is commercial law in the City.’
He added that he wanted to ‘look at schemes to make sure that we do support people coming into and staying in the profession at the bottom levels, because the people at the very top levels, it seems to me, do have a sufficient financial cushion to look after themselves.’
In November last year, Hughes told the Justice Alliance that he would try to persuade the government to abandon its proposals for the introduction of a 12-month ‘lawful residence’ test for civil legal aid, and the curtailment of judicial review. But since his appointment as Justice Minister a month later, Hughes has been largely silent on the subject of legal aid – a move which has been widely criticised by the profession.
Shadow Justice Minister Andy Slaughter MP said: ‘Simon Hughes’ admission that the cuts in legal aid go too far shows why the Liberal Democrats truly deserve their reputation for dishonesty and duplicity. In Westminster Simon Hughes votes along with Chris Grayling as he slashes the legal aid budget, but to his activists he admits the cuts are harsh.’
Slaughter continued: ‘If legal aid lawyers and clients are looking for protection and support from Simon Hughes and the Liberal Democrats then they will be bitterly disappointed. They are partners in crime with this legally illiterate Lord Chancellor as he undermines the rule of law and access to justice. They are complicit in this shameful betrayal of human rights and civil liberties.’
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