MPs warn on ‘unsustainable’ legal aid cuts

26 Jul 18

Cuts to legal aid in England and Wales risks “tarnishing” the wider criminal justice system, MPs have warned.

Changes to funding schemes for solicitors and barristers do not offer them adequate remuneration, according to the justice select committee.

The committee’s report, published today, found that defence lawyers were not being paid fairly for time spent reviewing unused prosecution material, which decreased the quality of representation for defendants.

The report said: “The pressure placed on defence lawyers to fulfil their professional obligations by reviewing increasing quantities of unused prosecution material is fundamentally unfair and likely to become unsustainable, and increasingly prejudicial to the defendant.”

The committee recommended the government conduct an “urgent” cross-departmental review of funding for all elements of the criminal justice system.

Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, noted the “fragility” of the criminal bar and criminal defence solicitors’ firms, and the “deep unhappiness” felt by barristers about their situation.

Neill said: “The government cannot kick these problems down the road any longer and they must carry out comprehensive reviews to develop policies that are sustainable in the long term.

 “Underfunding of the criminal justice system in England and Wales threatens its effectiveness, tarnishing the reputation of our justice system as a whole, and undermining the rule of law.”

The committee asked that the details of the review be published in time to influence the conclusions of the 2019 spending review.

The Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme, which supports legal aid solicitors, suffered a 8.75% cut in fees in 2014, according to the committee report.

Government data indicate that, in 2017-18, expenditure on criminal legal aid was £959m- just over 10% of total gross departmental expenditure of £9,498m.

Christina Blacklaws, president of the Law Society of England and Wales, said: “Many lawyers no longer see a viable career doing criminal legal aid work, and it is difficult to attract newer members of the profession.

“A thorough independent review of the long-term viability of the criminal legal aid system is now essential to ensure there is a stable supplier base of defence solicitors.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are already conducting a wide-ranging, evidence based review of the reforms to legal aid.

“We are talking to stakeholders across the profession and will take these views into account when considering the future of legal support in the justice system.”

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