Ministry of Justice (MoJ) plans to impose cuts of up to £30 million on criminal defence solicitors have been condemned today by the Law Society.
The cuts come less than a month after the MoJ published proposals that will see QCs' fees rise by 10% at the expense of other criminal advocates.
Under the plans published today, the MoJ will reduce payments to advocates appointed by the court to cross-examine alleged victims of abuse from private rates to legal aid rates, and will make changes to the Litigators Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS) which will slash payments for paper-heavy Crown Court cases. The reason given for this latter change is that more pages of evidence are now being served by the CPS, and therefore average costs per case are increasing.
James Parry, chair of the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Committee said, "These cuts are unnecessary and ill-timed, given the long term project to reform the litigator fee scheme, which will ultimately remove reliance on the pages of evidence which are creating this problem. The Society will be working with the MoJ on this longer term project and we believe that it is unwise to impose short-term cuts on the scheme before that project has even started.”
The Law Society commissioned Oxford Economics to follow up their 2014 report looking at trends in legal aid expenditure. Their new report, published today, demonstrates that the MoJ is on track to make further savings in the criminal legal aid budget without any further cuts to rates.
"The Ministry has extensive independent evidence from consultants* that demonstrates that solicitors' businesses cannot afford to absorb further cuts, and there is a substantial risk that these cuts will drive a significant number of firms into insolvency,” said James Parry.
“The firms most likely to bear the brunt of these cuts are the larger firms on whom the government depends to deliver a criminal defence service. The result could be that the government fails to meet its statutory obligations to ensure everyone accused of a crime has representation where required - a fundamental aspect of the rule of law and rights of citizens.
"We recognise that the MoJ has concerns about the use of paper as a proxy for determining fees in the Crown Court. With so much evidence now being video or data evidence, we have long shared those concerns. This is why we lobbied the Legal Aid Agency to start discussions about revisions to the LGFS to reflect the reality of Crown Court cases today. It is deeply disappointing that the MoJ is making ill-considered ad hoc changes to the scheme when those discussions are ongoing and making good progress."
Parry continued: "The solicitors' profession has engaged constructively with the Better Case Management and Transforming Summary Justice programmes to try to ensure that the criminal justice system operates more efficiently, and there is clear evidence that these changes are starting to bear fruit in terms of lower legal aid costs. Our members will not understand why, when they have done everything asked of them, they are being penalised because the prosecution is requiring them to do more work.
“This is not a rational approach. The Government needs to tackle the problem at source. It cannot keep responding to every change in the criminal justice system by slashing the fees paid to lawyers."
Notes to editors
*The reports during the crime tendering discussions from Otterburn Legal Consulting, PA Consulting, Deloitte and KPMG.
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