A coalition of criminal solicitors has lost an attempt to stop cut in legal aid contracts from 1,600 to 527.
A judicial review initiated by the Law Society, Criminal Laws Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) against the Ministry of Justice was rejected by the Appeal Court.
The solicitors’ bodies fighting the measures argued that the system is already overstretched and would deny many people access to legal representation.
Jonathan Black, the LCCSA’s president, said:
“We are staring into an abyss of rough justice. Unrepresented defendants will clog up our criminal courts and thousands of legal aid solicitors will lose their jobs, leaving legal advice deserts in parts of the country.”
The LCCSA also predicted that two thirds of criminal legal aid firms will be forced out of business. In addition to reducing the number of contracts, the Ministry of Justice plan to cut fees by 8.75 per cent. A fee reduction of the same level was made in March 2014.
Ministry of Justice view
The Ministry argues that there are too many firms operating in the market for criminal defence. Spreading the work around a smaller number of firms would allow them to make economies of scale and operate more cheaply.
The government has taken a number of steps to cut the legal aid bill since coming into power.
The group of criminal solicitors plan to continue the fight by taking the case to the Supreme Court. However, a request for an injunction to be made suspending the process until the final outcome was rejected by the Court of Appeal.
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan, formerly a lawyer himself, has previously claimed that Labour will shelve the plans for cuts if they are elected. However a recent contradiction of this statement has left his stance unclear, following claims that this may not be possible.
Solicitors have argued that the government should hold off putting the proposed cuts into action until, and if, they are re-elected. In the words of Robin Murray, vice-chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association
“It is undemocratic and unreasonable to expect firms to prepare for a highly complex bidding process for a scheme that might not happen.”
However, the Ministry of Justice seem intent on pushing on regardless. A spokesman said:
“We welcome today’s judgment and intend to continue with the tender for new criminal legal aid contracts …Our legal aid reforms are designed to ensure the system is fair for those who need it, the lawyers who provide services as part of it and importantly the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it.
We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after reform it will remain very generous – costing around £1.5bn a year”