The Bar is set to avoid further reductions in advocacy fees as the Ministry of Justice confirmed that it would make further cuts to criminal legal aid but for solicitors only – a move condemned by The Law Society which said it was ‘deeply concerned not only for the immediate future of the justice system but for its continued survival.’
The changes, confirmed today (10 June) in a ministerial statement from legal aid minister Shailesh Vara, include further fee cuts of 8.75% for solicitors representing those accused of wrongdoing while the number of contracts for solicitors providing 24-hour cover at police stations in local communities will also be cut to 527 from 1,600. However, the Ministry of Justice has chosen not to reduce advocacy fees ‘at this stage’.
Total cuts to criminal legal aid now amount to £320m, close to one third of the total budget.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen reacted with ‘dismay’ according to a statement and said: ‘We are deeply concerned not only for the immediate future of the justice system, but for its continued survival in years to come. Criminal legal aid solicitors are critical for ensuring that anyone accused of wrongdoing has a fair trial and yet few young lawyers see a future in this work, which is of extreme concern.’
‘Our criminal justice system is one of the most cost effective in Western Europe and has been the envy of the world. The consequences of these changes are serious. The government’s cuts could undermine the criminal justice system to the point that it may no longer deliver fair outcomes.’
Caplan also said that twenty years without fee increases followed by two sets of cuts since 2010 had already pushed firms’ viability to ‘breaking point’.
He added: ‘We have shared evidence with the Ministry of Justice from over 120 firms who are already suffering as a result of the previous round of cuts. The evidence shows that firms are on the edge of financial viability, and these cuts are likely to lead to bankruptcies, firms leaving the market, redundancies and a real impact on the quality of service. We called for the government urgently to review this evidence, and to avoid making these further drastic cuts. We are writing to the lord chancellor to convey our disappointment and to raise our serious concerns, and to urge him to think again.’
The Bar Council appeared notably more appeased with the announcement, with chairman Alistair MacDonald QC stating he was ‘pleased’ the government agreed not to proceed with cuts to the Advocates Graduated Fee Scheme, and was further ‘grateful’ to the Lord Chancellor for ‘listening to, and acting upon, the Bar’s concerns about the impact’ the cuts would have had. MacDonald expressed ‘grave concerns’ however about the effects on solicitor colleagues of further fee cuts.
It follows former education secretary Michael Gove in May replacing Chris Grayling as Secretary of State for Justice as part of Prime Minister David Cameron’s post-election reshuffle. During the election campaign, the Tory manifesto pledged to ‘continue to review our legal aid systems’, with Grayling having reduced the threshold at which people qualify for free legal support.
For more on the MoJ’s priorities see: An all-Tory cabinet: what does the new Conservative majority mean for lawyers?