Criminal cuts go ahead
Government response to duty contract consultation
The Government has announced its intention to press ahead with plans to dramatically reduce the number of legal aid contracts allowing criminal defence firms to represent suspects in the police station, while also cutting fees by a further 8.75%. These changes are likely to lead to the closure of many criminal defence firms, while making it ever more difficult for new and aspiring lawyers, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds, to sustain a career in this sector.
The 8.75% reduction in fees for advice, litigation and Magistrates’ Court advocacy, adding to an initial 8.75% cut which has taken effect already, is intended to take effect in July 2015. The reduction in the number of contracts for duty work from around 1,600 to 527 is scheduled to take effect in October 2015. You can access the YLAL response to the consultation (including the experiences of our members) here.
This is the second consultation on this particular issue, the first – which resulted in a decision to reduce the number of duty contracts to 525 – having recently been declared by the High Court to have been ‘so unfair as to result in illegality’. You can read more about that case (brought jointly by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) against the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling) here. Following a short further consultation period, the Government has now decided to increase this number to 527.
The decision to add only two more contracts onto the number originally proposed does little to address our concerns about the proposals. Despite acknowledging that ‘organisations may choose to drive down staff costs’ the Government has given little consideration to what this means in practice. In particular the response makes no mention of the impact of the proposed cuts on junior lawyers. The likely outcome of a reduction in duty solicitor contracts combined with a 17.5% fee cut will be a cut back in training, and a shift toward less experienced, overworked, junior lawyers, dealing with more complex cases with less in the way of supervision. This a poor outcome for aspiring and junior lawyers who wish to make a career in this area of public service, particularly those from low-income backgrounds who be put off entering the sector completely. And it is a poor outcome for clients, who should be entitled to the best quality of representation irrespective of whether they can afford to pay privately for a lawyer.
YLAL member James Ketteringham said:
‘At present our justice system – rightly – receives international acclaim. But who will lead the profession in 20 years if there is no space for proper training in quality firms? If our generation of junior lawyers chooses another branch of the profession or cannot move beyond paralegal roles or burns out under the burden of new ‘economies of scale’, the damage to criminal defence will be permanent.’
A recent NAO report, addressing the impact of legal aid cuts to civil legal aid, concluded that the Government lacked a ‘robust understanding’ of how civil legal aid cuts, which have already been implemented, would affect the market, and whether it would be sustainable for firms to continue providing legally aided services. It is a great shame that the Government has not reflected on this salutary warning, before proceeding with yet more cuts to criminal legal aid.
Please get in touch and tell us what you think. We want to keep campaigning for a quality justice system and tell decision makers your views. We don’t plan to give up despite the Government’s best efforts so hope you will not either. Email us at: email@example.com.