There was never likely to be much compromise and so it proved. The Government today (27 February) confirmed its final package of reforms to the legal aid system following consultation, that includes a range of measures ‘specifically designed to support lawyers through a period of transition and modernisation’. The package – which the Government hopes will slice more than £200m from the £1.2bn criminal legal aid budget – was swiftly condemned by the profession with the Bar Council claiming the measures confirmed its ‘worst fears’.
Unveiling the reforms, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said that barrister fees would be reduced by an average of 6% under the advocates graduated fees scheme (AGFS), which will cover 99% of crown court cases.
The MoJ said it would reduce solicitor fees in a ‘phased manner’ and extend the timetable for new Duty Provider Work contracts. Rates for new cases will fall by 8.75% from 20 March as part of an ‘initial reduction’. A second 8.75% cut will follow next year, cutting solicitor rates by a total of 17.5%.
The MoJ said the impact of the new contracting structure would be reviewed after a year of operation in 2016.
The plans confirm some concessions, including dropping controversial proposals to restrict client choice of a solicitor and an earlier model of price competitive tendering.
Other concessions include a widening of the number of contracts for duty work, from an initial proposal of 250 to 525, and softening of plans to offer a fixed national fee for magistrates work. The MoJ argues that the cuts will be targeted at higher earners, while the profession largely maintains that the shake-up will push large sections of the criminal bar into failure.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has agreed with the Lord Chief Justice that a review will be undertaken to identify ways of streamlining court processes, which will look at ways to reduce the number of pre-trial hearings, which require advocates to travel to and attend court.
Grayling commented: ‘This Government is dealing with an unprecedented financial challenge and I have no choice but to look for the savings. I cannot exempt legal aid from this but that doesn’t mean I don’t understand how challenging these reductions will be.
‘I have genuine respect for the quality services provided by the independent criminal bar and solicitors. I have spoken at length with solicitors and barristers about these reforms and listened closely to their views.
‘Today’s publication reflects many of the changes asked for. It does mean fee reductions but it also includes a series of measures to ease their effect on lawyers, including a range of support and assistance requested by The Law Society. I also want to make clear today that this Government will not seek further savings from criminal legal aid.’
Bar Council chairman Nicholas Lavender QC responded: ‘We are bitterly disappointed that, despite a sustained campaign emphasising that these proposals are contrary to the public interest, the Government is pressing ahead with significant cuts to legal aid for advocacy in the crown court. These cuts are financially unnecessary, will cause significant damage to the justice system and to our international reputation for upholding the Rule of Law and will drive skilled and experienced advocates away from publicly-funded criminal work.
‘Today, our worst fears have been confirmed. Regrettably, many skilled and experienced advocates are likely to have to leave criminal practice altogether. The quality of justice will suffer as a result, and the harm done may well be irreparable.’
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson commented: ‘Today’s announcement will inform our thinking and will influence preparations for the coming implementation and contract bidding process. We will continue to press Government in the coming weeks and months for further measures and to support practitioners through the implementation process.’
‘The Society will continue to consult its practitioner groups, committees and council members to reach out to as many members as possible. We will be issuing detailed support proposals in the coming weeks.’
The profession will now be watching to gauge the fall-out. There was already a day of ‘strike’ action in January, when barristers refused to handle cases, while the Law Society in December suffered an embarrassing loss of a confidence vote due to criticism of its policy of engagement with the MoJ.
Another day of protest against the cuts is set for 7 March.