CLSA: Proposed fee cuts will create ‘advice deserts’

Ministry of JusticeLegal aid deserts could reduce access to justice and eat into ministerial savings if proposed 17.5% fee cuts go ahead, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) has warned.

Last week, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) modified its plan to cut 30% from future and ongoing VHCC work, after the Bar indicated it might hold a boycott — cuts to ongoing cases will now be postponed until 1 April.

However, the Bar’s boycott may yet go ahead, and solicitors are actively considering what action to take.

Bill Waddington, chair of the CLSA, said: ‘I think most practitioners appear to be of the view that they will have to very seriously consider whether they can continue to carry out their contractual and professional obligations.

‘These are decisions made by individual businesses – is it sustainable for me to do this work? You will have firms not accepting that work.’

But would that mean a bigger firm hoovering up all the work? Waddington says: ‘It is complicated, but it is unlikely that a firm or 100 firms would be able to do all the work in the country.

‘We are genuinely concerned that with firms teetering on the edge, with some collapsing, our fear is that advice deserts around the country are created. The problem is that if a provider goes out then it doesn’t come back.

‘There are already areas of the country where it is quite difficult to find a lawyer – that is why the Public Defender Service was brought in. The PDS costs three or four times what a private practitioner costs.’

He said increased costs caused by delays to court time and miscarriages of justice should be set against savings from fee cuts.

As for Grayling’s recent suggestion that criminal law practitioners have not suggested alternatives to fee cuts, Waddington said: ‘We, and 16,000 others suggested alternatives in our response to the first consultation. Those responses dealt with numerous alternatives, so for him to say that is arrant nonsense.

‘Our second response – we got it out early – put forward a whole host of responses including alternatives to what was suggested. The Law Society position on this and the anger that was expressed by other practitioner groups , all the organisations were working very closely with the Law Society, and lots of suggestions went to the MoJ through that channel, and they didn’t like them. They rejected them.’

These suggestions included unfreezing wealthy defendant’s assets to allow legal fees to be paid, a levy on banks to fund big fraud cases, a surcharge on the convicted, and abolishing the duty solicitor call centre.

‘The classic quote from [Justice Secretary Chris Grayling] was in the second consultation paper, Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps, that “In most areas our analysis of responses to the consultation has convinced us that we should press ahead with our original proposals subject to no or only limited modification”,’ said Waddington.

‘What that says is, “we have read it all and we don’t agree with it”.’


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