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Change 'election issue' say lawyers

Lawyers are calling for controversial Government changes to the legal aid system to become "an election issue".

The call came after they lost their Court of Appeal battle against cuts to the number of duty solicitor contracts at magistrates' courts and police stations in England and Wales.

Solicitors' organisations say proposals to reduce the number of contracts up for tender from 1,600 to 527 will threaten access to justice for many accused of crime, especially the vulnerable.

The Ministry of Justice says they are necessary to make savings, but anyone who needs access to a lawyer will still get it.

The Law Society, the body representing solicitors, asked three appeal judges to rule that the proposals put forward by Chris Grayling, the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, were not viable and contained "serious defects".

The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) joined in the appeal.

But Lord Dyson, the Master of the Rolls, sitting with Lord Justice Elias and Lord Justice Sales, said the court did not accept that errors had been made.

They dismissed an appeal against a ruling by London's High Court in February that the Lord Chancellor's proposals were lawful.

The solicitors' groups are now considering attempting to take their case to the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, as a matter of public importance.

LCCSA president Jonathan Black said of today's ruling: "We're gutted. It's another terrible blow for our criminal justice system and access to justice.

"It's vital that legal aid becomes an election issue.

"We can't stress enough that additional cuts in an already-stretched system aren't necessary and we urge the public to demand a re-think."

Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: "The Court of Appeal decision is a devastating blow. We remain concerned that vulnerable people may not be able to obtain legal representation if they are accused of wrongdoing."

He added: "We are now considering our position and we will be looking to have early discussions with the new government on how to ensure access to justice for the most vulnerable in society."

Robin Murray, vice chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, called for the changes to be put on hold until the outcome of the general election.

He argued that the Labour Party had already indicated it would shelve them and it would be "a disgrace and constitutional outrage" for Mr Grayling to pursue them before the election.

Mr Murray said: "We believe this makes a strong case for civil servants to intervene under the purdah convention and inform the Lord Chancellor that this issue must wait until the outcome of the general election."

But a Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We welcome today's judgment and intend to continue with the tender for new criminal legal aid contracts on Friday.

"Our legal aid reforms are designed to ensure the system is fair for those who need it, the lawyers who provide services as part of it and importantly the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it.

"We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after reform it will remain very generous - costing around £1.5 billion a year.

"Anyone suspected of a crime will still have access to a legal aid lawyer of their choosing after reform, just as they do now."

In a joint judgment, the three appeal judges described how the Lord Chancellor decided last November to introduce a new tendering process for 527 duty solicitor contracts.

The move was part of wider reforms to the criminal legal aid system, including fee reductions of 17.5% and the restructuring of the market for legal services.

It was hoped the limited number of contracts proposed would encourage the "consolidation" of law firms so that they were able to absorb the reduction in fees through economies of scale and dealing with a wider spread of cases.

This would allow law firms "to average out profit-making and loss-making cases so as to realise overall profits on a 'swings and roundabouts' approach".

The judges commented: "Whether this will in fact be the effect of the reforms is very controversial."

But they dismissed the lawyers' claims that the Lord Chancellor had failed to make a "proper and lawful" assessment of the likely impact of his proposed reforms on the legal services market.

The judges also rejected arguments that Mr Grayling had left out of account important costs solicitors would face when restructuring their businesses which would affect their viability.

These included the costs of funding any increased working capital needed to provide a service under the larger contracts, plus the costs involved in achieving consolidation and the staff efficiency levels implied by the proposed contracts.

Dismissing the appeals on all grounds, the judges ruled that the Lord Chancellor had taken all relevant matters into account, including the use of interim payments to support law firms, and not acted perversely or unlawfully.

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