The Ministry of Justice’s consultation, Transforming Legal Aid, is intended to save £220m from the criminal legal aid budget of about £1bn a year.
• A financial eligibility threshold will prevent those with a disposable household income of £37,500 or more from receiving legal aid in the crown court. The Ministry of Justice suggests it will affect only 200 people a year; others believe any member of the middle classes facing charges may be in for a nasty shock.
• There will be competitive tendering for a new generation of solicitors’ contracts to represent defendants in police stations and magistrates courts. The number of contracts will fall from 1,600 to 400 and a price cap will be set at 17.5% below previous rates paid. Law firms warn it will not be worth tendering and that high street solicitors firms will close.
• To guarantee economies of scale, the MoJ is removing defendants’ rights to choose their solicitor. Solicitors argue that adequacy, rather than high quality, will be financially rewarded.
• The MoJ proposes paying lawyers the same rate for early or late guilty pleas. That will, lawyers warn, provide “a perverse incentive to plead guilty”; miscarriages of justice are bound to follow.
• Prisoners who challenge their treatment in jail will no longer be entitled to legal aid.
• A residency test will exclude those with “little or no connection to this country” from receiving support for civil legal actions in England and Wales. The Catholic church has condemned it as harmful to recently arrived victims of human trafficking and domestic abuse.
• Judicial reviews will become more difficult. Those cases deemed to have a less than 50% chance of success will no longer be funded through legal aid.
• Other proposals involve cutting experts’ fees by 20% and fees in complex criminal trials by 30%.
Legal aid, the provision of advice and representation in court to those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer, was established by Clement Attlee’s Labour government in 1949. Supporters revere it as one of the principal pillars of the post-war welfare state. However, over the years, costs have escalated as the UK became an increasingly litigious society.
The Ministry of Justice estimates that legal aid in England and Wales now costs the taxpayer around £2bn a year and describes it as the most expensive system of its kind in the world. Lawyers dispute the figures, maintaining that costs are falling as crime rates decline and that many other countries’ criminal-justice systems, which rely on investigating magistrates, are more costly.
The coalition government is not the first to attempt to limit the bill. The last Labour government began reducing fees in 1998. Criminal barristers say they had already suffered a 40% cut in income before the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, began imposing the latest round of savings.
Under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which came into force last year, around £320m was sliced out of the annual budget for civil cases such as family, housing, debt and welfare law. Family courts have been inundated by separating couples forced to represent themselves in often traumatic cases.
The latest cuts of £215m to criminal legal aid – which have reduced lawyers’ fees by up to 30% – have provoked successive mass walkouts by criminal barristers and solicitors since January. Solicitors and probation officers – who oppose Grayling’s plans to privatise offender rehabilitation services – staged a 48-hour protest on Monday and Tuesday, culminating in a march on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) bearing an effigy of the secretary of state. Criminal barristers, however, reached agreement with the MoJ last week after the government agreed to postpone, until after the election next summer, some cuts for advocacy in crown courts.
Last week, Imran Khan, who represented the family of Stephen Lawrence, said the cuts would make it impossible to take on a similar case today.