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England & Wales lawyers unite against legal aid cuts

15 May 2013

Solicitor and barrister organisations in England & Wales have agreed to unite to oppose the Ministry of Justice consultation proposals on legal aid.

The MoJ paper outlines price-competitive tendering with a ceiling on rates at 17.5% below current legal aid rates. Only a few contracts will be awarded in each area, in a drive to provide accused persons with basic representation by firms handling business in bulk.

Principal points of concerns on which the proposals will be opposed are:

  • abolition of freedom of choice of representation, which the lawyers say is an unacceptable inroad into the basic rights of those facing criminal charges;
  • imposition of price-competitive tendering with the price cap that will make it uneconomic for firms to provide quality services, leading to a wholesale exodus from the market;
  • fixed contract sizes which will make it impossible for smaller firms to remain in the market and provide no incentive for firms to compete on quality; and
  • flattening of fee rates so that a solicitor is paid as much for a guilty plea as for a potentially complex case where a client is not guilty: this will introduce perverse incentives and a danger of miscarriages of justice.

Organisations which have agreed to work together against the plans are the Law Society of England & Wales, the Bar Council, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, the Criminal Bar Association, the Solicitors Association of Higher Court Advocates, the Big Firms Group, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, and the Society of Asian Lawyers.

LSEW chief executive Desmond Hudson said: "There was an unprecedented level of agreement between all who attended on our opposition to these four key aspects of the Government proposals and our concern that they will sabotage the criminal justice system of which this country is rightly proud. We will be working together over the coming weeks and months to co-ordinate our campaigning work and efforts to protect the already hard pressed system."

He added: "There is a very high level of concern across all legal practitioners at these proposals. Amongst many examples, the attack on a defendant’s right to freedom of choice of his or her lawyer is grave. The state will prosecute you and then decide who can represent you."

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar, commented: "The Bar fears that these proposals, if implemented, will reduce even further the right of the less well-off to quality legal representation, whether in civil or criminal matters. That right is a basic tenet of a democratic society and should not be further eroded."

Click here for a report of a meeting at which senior servants were challenged on the proposals.

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