In following through on its threat to drastically cut legal aid fees, the government has severely – and knowingly – undermined access to justice for millions of working people.
From 27th January 2014 a financial eligibility threshold was introduced limiting access to legal aid to those with a joint disposable income of below £37,500. This will drastically affect the ability of hard working people on average incomes, including teachers, carers, nurses and fire-fighters to access justice by cutting them off at the first hurdle: to defend themselves they will have no option but to fork out a significant sum of money.
This means that thousands of working people facing false allegations, which almost always come suddenly and unexpectedly, preventing claimants to save up in advance, will have to pay their own legal costs. They may be innocent (and at Thompsons 98% of our clients either have the charges dropped or are found not guilty) but they will have to find the money from their own pocket to prove it. Regardless of what it really cost to hire a good legal team, individuals who have gone through the ordeal of proving their innocence will only be reimbursed at legal aid rates, which will almost always be much lower than the real cost, leaving them out of pocket.
Legal Aid Rates are being forced down too – a cut of 17.5% across the board. The consequence will be lawyers – unwilling to have their firms go bust - pulling out of criminal legal aid altogether. Fewer skilled lawyers means innocent people having to use less experienced and less professional practitioners. Less experience means more miscarriages of justice.
Paula Porter, Head of Criminal Law at Thompsons Solicitors commented:
“In his report to Parliament, the Justice Secretary said his ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ package will save the taxpayer £215 million every year by 2018/19. The figures are disputed and ignore the social impact of his changes as innocent people drown in enforced debt or are convicted rather than cleared but they also reveal the real aim of these reforms.
“They are not about making the system better nor are they concerned with justice, the bottom line is all about cutting the expense of the justice system to the Treasury. Improved efficiency can be positive but here a top line spending figure is simply being reduced to tick a political box and regardless of huge social and moral consequences.”
The government says it has taken on board the views of stakeholders during the consultation process and has made some changes which should lessen the impact of the proposals for legal practitioners and claimants. These include retaining client choice, dropping a single fee applied irrespective of plea, which is something Thompsons Solicitors argued against in its consultation submission, as well as the removal of price competitive tendering.
However, the justice secretary clearly has selective hearing. He hasn’t listened hard enough to The Law Society, The Bar Council or most of the legal profession, all of whom continue to oppose these savage cuts.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) is organising a 'Save Legal Aid' demonstration outside Parliament today, March 7th. Visit www.lccsa.org.uk for more information.