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Weekly round-up 27 – 31 January

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justice2Bar and solicitors unite to oppose legal aid cuts: A new national campaign group has been set up in opposition to the legal aid cuts. The National Justice Committee is comprised of the six circuit leaders of the Bar; solicitors and barristers from all the representative bodies involved in criminal legal aid and from groups representing those affected by the attacks on civil legal aid; Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, the Justice Alliance and the Big Firms Group. A press release sent out by the group on Tuesday said: ‘This committee notes the devastating effects of legal aid cuts and restrictions in social welfare law, family law and immigration law. This committee opposes all further legal aid cuts and proposals to weaken the ability of the ordinary citizen to challenge unlawful decision-making which will diminish our social fabric by reducing access to justice.’  The committee has urged the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, ‘to engage fully’ with its members. ‘We can provide evidence to prove that the cuts do not equal savings and that the savings sought can be achieved without cuts,’ said the National Justice Committee. ‘We hope for constructive engagement with the Lord Chancellor and his officials so that at the end of this process we have a justice system fit for purpose and fair and open to all.

Bar Council Chairman: legal aid cuts a false economy: The new chairman of the Bar Council, Nicholas Lavender QC, told the Guardian this week that the cuts to legal aid pose a threat to the quality of justice in the UK, and represent a false economy. ‘Our legal system depends on lawyers with the necessary skills and experience,’ said Lavender. ‘At the moment we have [enough] lawyers but the effect of these cuts will be to drive people out of criminal advocacy.’ The Bar Council chairman warned that, if the cuts go ahead, there will be too few experienced and skilled barristers to deal with complex criminal cases.  ‘The results, paradoxically, will be to increase costs to the criminal justice system because less efficient trials cost more,’ he said. ‘Trials will take longer, there will be more appeals and more cases in which the wrong results are reached: the innocent convicted and the guilty freed. It’s a very real threat to the quality of justice in this country. The legal aid cuts are a false economy both because of their effect on criminal justice and because they damage our reputation as a centre of legal excellence.’ Lavender added that, with the rising cost of university and the bar training course, only the wealthy may be able to afford a career at the bar in the future. Commenting on the prospect of more protests by criminal barristers, following 6 January’s mass walkout, he said: ‘It’s a shame the government has introduced proposals which have made the profession so concerned that they felt driven to do something like that. There’s a lot of support across the bar as a whole for the position of criminal barristers.

PLP to challenge residence test: The Public Law Project (PLP) has been granted permission to challenge the introduction of a 12-month ‘lawful residence’ test for civil legal aid, it announced this week. According to the PLP, the proposed residence test is ‘contrary to the principle that there should be equality before the law’ because it will ‘remove the protection of the courts altogether for a great many people who fall foul of it.’ As well as granting permission to PLP to challenge the residence test, Mr Justice Turner also awarded a Protective Costs Order in favour of the project, limiting PLP’s exposure to the risk of an adverse costs order if the challenge is unsuccessful. The substantive hearing  will take place before the residence test is due to come into force, in May this year.  Michael Fordham QC and Ben Jaffey are acting in the case pro bono.

Cuts may force defendants to represent themselves in fraud trial: Eight defendants in a major fraud trial may have to represent themselves because barristers are refusing to work under new fee rates, The TImes [paywall] reported this week. Lee Adams, a solicitor-advocate representing four of the defendants in the £4.5m case, told Southwark Crown Court that he had approached 60 sets of chambers but no barristers would take on the case at the new fee rates. Judge Anthony Leonard said that any application to throw the case out should be made on the first day of the trial – 28 April – but meanwhile the defendants must ‘work on the basis of being ready for trial with or without counsel.’ The case was originally classified by the Legal Aid Agency as a ‘very high cost case,’ for which proposed fees cuts are highest at 30%, but was downgraded to ‘graduated fees’ level after barristers refused the work. Barristers are still boycotting the case, however. Adams told the court: ‘The answer across the board is there are no advocates who will take this case. All solicitors are taking the position that although we have many years experience preparing cases, presenting cases is a very different matter.’ Nick Brett, a solicitor representing one of the other defendants, said: ‘There’s no unwillingness to do anything at all. It’s not a question of us being unwilling to progress the case.’ He added that solicitors were concerned about how ‘ethical’ it would be to progress the case without barristers’ advice.

Criminal legal aid solicitors face the brunt of waste and inefficiency: The Law Society has put together a summary of research, reports and information to highlight waste in the criminal justice system and reiterate its opposition to the proposed fee cuts for criminal legal aid lawyers. Criminal legal aid solicitors already face ‘challenging conditions’, said the Society, with further cuts posing ‘a substantial risk to the sustainability of criminal defence providers.‘   The Society highlights ‘inadequately trained interpreters; delays in prisoner transport and poor court planning’ as causing the greatest waste and inefficiency in the criminal justice system. The page collates a number of reports which demonstrate that the government could save money by alternative methods than cutting the fees of criminal legal aid lawyers.

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