Government plans to overhaul legal aid threaten to destroy the “world-renowned” British justice system, barristers have told ministers – and prison experts have said the measures threaten such a level of national unrest inside our jails that they could eventually cost far more than any potential savings would ever hope to save.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid reform, which includes paving the way for lawyers to compete for contracts.
The 150-page response said price competitive tendering (PCT) promotes the “lowest possible quality of service” and will result in further changes to civil legal aid, hitting society’s most vulnerable people.
Other changes will see criminal defendants living in households with a disposable income of £37,500 or more stopped from automatically accessing legal aid, while prisoners’ rights to the support will also would be curbed.
Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: “There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all.
“PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no Government should be proud.”
She added: “The proposals simply do not have a sufficient evidence base on which to attract support. We believe that if these proposals are implemented as they stand, the system will go very badly wrong. Once implemented, these measures cannot be easily reversed.”
Ms McGowan QC said Justice Secretary Chris Grayling should achieve any required reforms “without destroying a world-renowned institution”.
The Bar Council response said that the proposals would destroy the livelihoods of many smaller solicitors’ firms and the criminal defence Bar.
Criminal legal aid costs taxpayers more than £1 billion every year and the proposals should cut the bill by £220 million.
In April, reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (Laspo) came into effect, removing large areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid.
Some law firms estimated the reforms will reduce the number of people who qualify for legal aid by 75%, meaning around 200,000 fewer cases, while barristers warned the cuts are the biggest to civil legal aid since the system was introduced in 1949.
In its response to the consultation, the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the body responsible for regulating barristers, said plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a “guilty” or “not guilty” plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty.
It said cases where the defendant enters an initial guilty plea are typically shorter and so cheaper than trials to assess guilt.
Setting the same fee for cases where a defendant pleads guilty and for longer trials may create an incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to plead guilty.
Bar Standards Board chair Baroness Ruth Deech said: “These reforms may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial.
“While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public, and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly, remain of the utmost importance.”
Mr Grayling said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world.
“But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government’s commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.
“Professional, qualified lawyers will be available, just as they are now, and contracts will only be awarded to lawyers who meet quality standards set by the profession.
“Wealthy defendants who can afford to pay for their own legal bills should do so. Our proposal is to introduce a threshold on Crown Court legal aid so that people earning around £100,000 a year are no longer automatically granted legal aid.
“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid.
“These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone’s right to a fair trial.”
The disposable income cap of £37,500 per household would impact defendants with six-figure salaries, an MoJ spokesman added.
But Mark Leech, editor of Converse the national newspaper for prisoners in England and Wales said those figures were disputed by many prison law experts, and the threatened cuts in legal aid could end up ‘costing far more than the measures would ever save’.
Mr Leech said: “Look, its not rocket science, but history shows there comes a policy tipping point where one cut too much results in a backlash inside our overcrowded powder-keg prisons, which are things that we desperately need to avoid – these things can rapidly spread nationally, caused by cuts that while understandable politically are nontheless, in practice, just one cut too many.”
Mr Leech explaned: “In 1990 the riot at Strangeways prison in Manchester spread within days to 13 other prisons, it cost the taxpayer over ninety million pounds, people died, no one wants to be seen talking these things up, and certaintly not me – but we can’t ignore history nor the facts or the consequences that we know from history are seriously likely to occur.
“The lesson now, before its too late is this: Stop, don’t pick on vulnerable prisoners any more, they’re a soft political target but history also shows that pushed too far they are a formidable resistable force which when unleashed has an incredible national impetus – try focusing on the bankers (or ‘Banksters’ as they’ve become known) instead – or at least as a minimum let’s have a rational national debate about its policy.
“It’s not too late – but we really do need to be now all on the same side.”