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Proposed legal aid plans could be devastating to local solicitor firms

Lady Justice

New legal aid plans set out by government ministers could have a number of devastating effects on both local solicitor and lawyer firms and the victims and defendants of crime. Ministers are currently looking to cut £220 million from the annual legal aid budget in England and Wales, saying that while the UK's justice service is 'world-renowned', it is too expensive, costing the UK taxpayer around £2bn every year.

The government wants to introduce the new legal aid plans in order to reduce the number of larger organisations assisting and providing legal assistance. The new proposals will also see:

  • An introduction of price competitive tendering (PCT), which means that large organisations will have to compete with smaller organisations in a bidding war for legal aid contracts.
  • Defendants with a disposable income above £37,500 will be unable to have automatic access to legal aid.
  • A reduction in prisoners’ rights to claim support if they want to make a complaint against the prison system.

The government has stated that the new plans will not affect a defendant’s right to a fair trial, and lawyers, no matter what firm they represent, will still have to meet the current high standards required. Nevertheless few see the changes as a positive step forward and instead they’re seen as a truly damaging step backwards.

Criticism of the new legal aid proposals

One of the biggest detractors to the new legal aid plans is retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper. He believes that the new changes will see the removal of the long-held right that a defendant can choose his or her legal aid solicitor. He says that under the new plans, defendants will be allocated a firm of solicitors & lawyers or even corporate providers and he believes that this will affect the way that legal aid providers market themselves. Currently they compete on the basis of excellence whereas under the new PCT they would most likely only give advice that is in their best financial interests.

Current legislation permits lawyers to receive more money if they win a case after a defendant has pleaded not guilty. However, under the new proposals, lawyers and other legal aid professionals would receive the same amount of money whether defendants pleaded guilty or not guilty. This could mean that defendants are encouraged to plead guilty in small cases as the legal aid providers would rather a short case which delivers the same financial gain as long drawn out trials.

The Association of Prison Lawyers also agree that the new PCT proposals will see the quality and excellence of services offered to current defendants diminish. They said that:

"The changes will mean that funding will no longer be available for such important matters as the separation of mothers and babies, prisoners being held in solitary confinement and access to rehabilitative programmes."

Maura McGowain QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council also commented on the proposals, saying:

“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."

Driving professional and expert law firms out of business

With the removal of the defendant’s right to choose a solicitor, it’s widely believed that companies as powerful and wide-reaching as Tesco and Eddie Stobart will be able to bulk contract work. This will therefore see less professional advice given to clients in favour of advice that benefits a company’s financial interests.

We here at Fonseca & Partners are a professional legal aid provider that pride ourselves on offering our clients excellent first-rate services. We will stand alongside our fellow colleagues across the country to do everything possible to stop these potentially damaging proposals becoming law.

If you need to be represented in or out of court by one of our highly trained and professional lawyers please contact us today: 01495 303124. You can also contact us via our online claim form, to which we aim to respond within 24 hours, or call in our Ebbw Vale offices at any time.