New legal aid reforms proposed by the government in early June have been met with outrage by barristers, defendants and human rights organisations. The plans are one of a number of reforms, such as the recent Jackson Reforms introduced in April 2013, which have been proposed to cut the cost of legal services in the UK.
The plans propose to introduce a price competitive tendering system where law firms will tender to represent defendants, no longer allowing defendants with legal aid to choose a solicitor themselves. The new system is based purely on money and not suitability which means that defendants won’t be able to choose the most suitable legal expert to deal with their case, which can be a particular issue for complicated cases such as fraud.
Since the news broke of the proposed plans, many people have spoken out against them. Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said: “There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all.”
The Bar Council, the body which represents barristers in England and Wales, has also condemned the government’s plans as potentially “damaging the British justice system, which is renowned worldwide for fairness and impartiality“. So it’s not just vulnerable people who could be affected by the reforms but the image of the British justice system could be tarnished.
Below is a guide outlining the facts on the legal aid reforms and who the changes will have an impact on.
Impact on defendants
• Defendants receiving legal aid will not be able to choose their solicitor.
• People receiving legal aid tend to be some of the most vulnerable groups in society including immigrants, ethnic minorities, homeless people and vulnerable women. Many of the people affected by the legal aid reforms have common social welfare issues including redundancy, housing issues and debt. The new plans will mean these groups of people will have their legal support limited.
• Defendants who require very specific advice may not get a fair trial as they may not have access to a specialist solicitor.
• Defendants in prison would have their legal aid limited to only parole and disciplinary hearings dealt with by magistrates. This would mean that prisoner’s rights such as living conditions, treatment and family rights could be compromised as prisoners won’t have access to the legal aid needed to fund a case.
Impact on solicitors
• Solicitors’ fees will be cut to enable firms to compete for the bids.
• Contracts will be awarded through tendering rather than which solicitor is best suited to the case.
• Smaller legal firms might not be able to compete with larger firms in the tendering process as the danger is that large corporate firms will start to offer legal aid services, and use their size to underbid smaller, specialist companies.
• The reforms will put pressure on specialist firms who deal with very specific cases and therefore hinder diversity across the legal profession.
Impact it could have on you
Legal aid cuts don’t just affect society’s vulnerable people, they could have an impact anyone. It may be that you’ve never needed legal help in the past but legal trouble could be just around the corner. For example, you could be charged with a driving offense, charged with assault when acting in self-defence, injured in an accident which wasn’t your fault or wrongly accused of a crime you didn’t commit. If this was to happen under the government’s proposals then you wouldn’t be able to choose the best solicitor for your circumstances, or a solicitor you trust, you would be allocated with an ‘all round’ solicitor who might not have the specific expertise to handle your case.
The Bar Council has approached Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, and asked him to ensure the decision he reaches is “a fully informed one.” The government’s response to the ongoing consultation between the Bar Council and the Ministry of Justice will be published in autumn.
Richard Meggitt is a partner in the specialist personal injury firm, ASD, which is based in Sheffield in the UK. ASD was established in 1984 and are a firm of qualified and experienced personal injury solicitors.