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Solicitors lose battle against legal aid reforms

Barrister outside Southwark Crown Court

In February 2014, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced plans to cut by two thirds the number of legal firms able to perform duty solicitor work in magistrates' courts and police stations. Ever since then, the government has faced opposition from lawyers in the form of protests & strikes, and an appeal that has now been dismissed by the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

The MoJ wants to cut the cost of Britain’s legal system from £2 billion a year to around £1.5 billion, and under their proposal the number of contracts for duty solicitors attending police stations and magistrates’ courts is due to fall from 1,600 to just 527 in England and Wales. An 8.7% cut in solicitors’ fees is also expected to come into effect. The MoJ has stated that these cuts are needed because currently there are too many legal firms operating in the criminal defence market, a market which needs consolidating to ensure that law practices bidding for legal contracts do so more efficiently.

The Law Society and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) - the two bodies representing solicitors - have argued that cutting the number of contracts will reduce access to justice for thousands of people and could bankrupt many small law firms.

Nevertheless, the Court of Appeal has dismissed the petition denouncing the cuts as legally flawed. The judges ruled that Chris Grayling had taken all relevant matters into account when drafting the proposal and had not acted perversely or unlawfully. Thus essentially meaning the MoJ is free to continue its tender for new criminal legal aid contracts.

What happens now?

The Law Society and the LCCSA have expressed their disbelief at the ruling. They strongly believe that these cuts will do more harm than good and they will continue the fight in every way they can. The two bodies are considering taking their case to the Supreme Court as a matter of public importance, but there is no guarantee that the court will rule in their favour. That’s why the solicitors’ groups are calling for legal aid to become an election issue now that the general election is just a few weeks away.

The Labour Party has already given a strong indication that if they win the election in May, they would shelve plans to cut contracts for duty solicitors; this prompted senior lawyers to call for a delay on these cuts until after the general election. Robin Murray, vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said that it would be “a disgrace and constitutional outrage” for the MoJ to pursue these reforms before the election. Nevertheless, the MoJ has revealed that it plans to press on with these changes, saying anyone accused of a crime will still have the same access to a legal aid lawyer as they do now.

Timetable for criminal legal aid contracts revealed

Following the Court of Appeal ruling, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) set new deadlines for crime duty tender contracts. The tender process for the 527 contracts that are now on offer continued on 27th March and will close at midday on 5th May. The LAA has said that work under the new contracts will begin on 11th January 2016, which is more than three months after the contracts were supposed to begin.

Here at Fonseca and Partners, we are wary of extreme cuts to legal aid, believing that the MoJ’s reforms will seriously hurt the industry and could see a significant increase in the number of people representing themselves in court. If you've suffered a personal injury, be it in work or in a road traffic accident, contact our team today. Our experienced solicitors can review your claim and win you any compensation you’re entitled to.