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High Court judgement puts a dent in plans to cut criminal legal aid

Royal Courts of Justice (England)

Legal aid is perhaps the most controversial topic in the legal industry today, and has been ever since the UK Government announced back in June 2013 that it was planning to cut £220 million from the annual legal aid budget in England and Wales. Since that announcement, the government backtracked on legal aid competition plans, the Liberal Democrats stringently opposed more legal aid cuts, barristers took part in an historic strike, and the Solicitors Regulation Authority began an investigation into the impact of legal aid cuts on legal firms across the country.

Now, more than a year after the plans were initially announced, the government’s proposed cuts to criminal legal aid have suffered another setback after the High Court ruled that the consultation process of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was so unfair it amounted to illegality.

Government told to halt cost-cutting plans

In his judgement, Mr Justice Burnett said that the government’s failure to properly consult with legal professionals was the leading cause of his ruling, giving the example of the government’s refusal to allow people to comment on vital reports, created by accountants KPMG and Otterburn, on the number of criminal advisory contracts available to solicitors’ firms.

During the case, the government was told that they needed to halt their plans to reduce legal aid payments to duty solicitors at police stations. Justice Secretary Chris Grayling had previously announced that the work of 1,600 firms would be limited to just 525 contracts, which campaigners argued would lead to the closure and merger of many high-street legal firms.

The chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA), Bill Waddington, criticised Chris Grayling, saying the leader of Britain’s world-renowned justice system should act fairly, but instead he acted in a manifestly unjust manner. Robin Murray, vice-chairman of the CLSA, added that the secrecy in which the government acted now means the CLSA and many other organisations will no longer have faith in the government’s ability in the future to hold a fair, open and honest consultation on issues.

The MoJ has announced that it is reviewing the technical issues raised by the High Court in their judgement, and is carefully considering its next steps, but will continue with its plans to reform the criminal legal aid system to ensure a fairer and more cost effective justice system.

No legal aid U-turn by Labour

While Labour were quick to point out the shortcomings with the government’s plans for criminal legal aid, Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter revealed that if the proposed cuts to legal aid are enforced next year, a Labour government would be unable to reverse them. Speaking at the Labour conference, Mr Slaughter said that while Labour would work to restore confidence in the British justice system and start a review into what coalition changes could be repealed, they could not say for sure whether legal aid could be restored to its pre-cut levels.

Here at Fonseca & Partners, we support a fair justice system where everyone is able to acquire legal aid if they need it. We are worried that these proposed changes to legal aid will lead to an explosion in the number of people representing themselves in court, or failing to make a justifiable claim. If you would like to speak with us about making a personal injury claim or simply to get legal advice, please contact us today on enquiries@fonsecalaw.co.uk, 01495 303124 or visit us in our offices, situated in Ebbw Vale.