Weekly round-up 24 – 28 February

justice2High-profile legal aid chambers dissolves: Legal aid set Renaissance looks set to become the second high-profile barristers’ chambers to fold, citing the impact of the ongoing legal aid cuts. The radical human rights set Tooks chambers was first to go last September. According to the Gazette, members of Renaissance have voted to dissolve the set in its current form following the departure of 25 members to Michael Mansfield’s reincarnation of Tooks – Mansfield Chambers. Practice manager Elaine Cheeseman did not rule out the possibility of a re-styled ‘Renaissance Two’ being formed, practising from a smaller location after the current lease in Gray’s Inn ends at the end of March. ‘There’s no doubt that the impact of the legal aid changes has taken its toll,’ said Cheeseman. ‘It’s extremely unfortunate.’

AG may intervene in VHCCs: A judge hearing one of the seven serious cases that have been left without counsel because of publicly funded barristers boycotting new legal aid rates has asked the attorney general to appoint an amicus curiae to assist the defendants in the case, the Gazette reported this week. Fees for Very High Costs Cases (VHCCs) were slashed by 30% in December, leading the barristers instructed in a number of complex fraud trials to return their briefs.  According to the Gazette, the judge requested the intervention of an amicus curiae – or friend of the court – to ensure equality of arms between the defendants – who have solicitors but not barristers representing them – and the prosecuting authority, the Financial Conduct Authority.  A spokeswoman for the attorney general, Dominic Grieve, said he is considering the matter.

Law Society still strongly opposed to cuts: An emergency meeting of the Law Society’s governing Council took place this week, ahead of the government’s final announcement on criminal legal aid.  In light of the meeting the Society issued the following resolution: ‘The Law Society remains strongly opposed to the proposed fee cuts. It continues to have very grave concerns about the Lord Chancellor’s proposal to adopt a two-tier structure for general and duty contracts.‘  The Society questioned in particular  the impact of the changes on access to justice, as well as the impact on diversity within the profession and the need to meet regulatory objectives. The resolution added that the Law Society would ‘continue to engage with the MoJ to ensure access to justice is maintained, and the diversity of the supplier base’ but that ‘The Society reserves the right to disengage, dependent on the outcomes of negotiation.’  The Law Society called upon the Lord Chancellor to commission and publish an equality impact assessment on his proposed changes prior to their implementation and said that, should the proposals go ahead, the Law Society will ‘press the MoJ to work with the Society to develop a support package, and commission and publish, before any further cuts in legal aid rates, an impact assessment of the initial cuts and other changes on the working of the criminal justice system and defence solicitor practitioners.’

Grayling accused of manipulating legal aid figures: The six circuit leaders wrote to the Telegraph this week, expressing their concerns over the government’s legal aid figures. The letter followed shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan’s complaint to the Cabinet Secretary that parliamentary answers from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) are being ‘deliberately manipulated for party political purposes’. ‘We are also concerned about figures being released on the supposed costs of legal aid,’ said the circuit leaders. ‘Mr Grayling quotes £92 million as the cost of “very high cost cases” to justify a 30 per cent cut to legal aid fees, yet ignores the fact that these costs will have already fallen to £67 million by April – a significant reduction in itself,’ they said.  They also criticised the justice minister, Shailesh Vara, for citing barrister’s earnings at £84,000, without taking VAT or overheads into account.   ‘This is inconvenient information for a government keen to portray all state-funded criminal lawyers as fat cats – a myth we have disproved time and again,’ they said.  The barristers concluded by urging the government to be ‘open in  their financial statements to the public’.

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