The quality of legal representation for anyone accused of wrongdoing in England and Wales will be damaged significantly by new cuts to defence solicitor fees, the Law Society warned today.
Just five days after the Office for National Statistics published figures showing that crime has increased considerably, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has announced plans to cut the fees paid to defence solicitors.
Responding to the MoJ plans to cut fees to criminal litigators undertaking complex cases in the crown court, Law Society president Joe Egan said: "The relatively minor savings that might be obtained from these ill-advised cuts do not warrant the substantial damage they could cause to the sustainability of a very fragile market, and to access to justice in this country.”
Under the MoJ plans, payments will be slashed for paper-heavy crown court cases. The rationale is that more pages of evidence are now being served by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), and that average costs per case are increasing.
Joe Egan said: “The MoJ says its vision is ‘to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society’. The reality is that rates for lower cases in the crown courts are now so low that firms doing this work have been making a loss. Often solicitors have been cross-subsiding this work with funding from bigger cases so they can represent vulnerable people accused of wrongdoing. These cuts are a quick-fix, money-saving solution. They are untenable, highly counter-productive and short-sighted.
“More pages of evidence are being served by the CPS because cases are now more complicated. Terror cases, fraud cases and serious historic sex cases require a large amount of work, for which solicitors should be paid. Defence solicitors have not received any fee increase since 1998. For some cases the level of remuneration under legal aid allows them to do no more than first aid. That is far from a world class justice system.”
Joe Egan added: “The number of solicitors specialising in criminal law has already plummeted, and further reckless cuts are likely to accelerate this impending crisis. The ageing demographic of the defence community means the government is facing a ticking time bomb in terms of being able to continue to meet its obligations to provide legal aid for those accused of wrongdoing who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer themselves.
“The Ministry of Justice said it received a total of 1,005 responses to its consultation on the reforms and the views expressed were almost entirely against the proposals. The government has not yet quantified the savings already being made through a number of ongoing reforms to the criminal justice system.
“The impact of the first fee cut of 8.75% has not yet been assessed - either on the sustainability of legal aid firms or on the savings it has brought to the government. Further savings are set to be made in the future from a wide-ranging courts and tribunals reform programme and other initiatives. The savings from these initiatives must be taken into account before potentially damaging cuts are made to solicitors’ fees.”
Notes to editors
In June 2017 the Law Society issued a practice note to legal aid solicitors specialising in criminal law reminding them that they can exercise their discretion when deciding to accept cases if the work threatens the viability of their firm.
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