Legal aid consultation closing
Published 01/11/2013 | 10:41
Barristers have accused the Government of putting "cuts before justice" as a consultation on legal aid reforms comes to a close.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, told the Ministry of Justice it has put "instant savings above the long-term health of the justice system".
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling's reforms will see prisoners' access to legal aid limited, a household disposable income threshold for criminal legal aid introduced and set out proposals for reducing the cost of fees for representation.
Mr Grayling hopes the proposals, which have been put out to a consultation that closes today, will deliver savings of £220 million per year by 2018/19.
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said the department has tried to ensure the proposals have more impact on high earners pointing out that 70% of criminal barristers contracted to so-called Very High Cost Cases receive fee incomes of more than £100,000.
Handing in the Bar Council's response to the Government, Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar, said: "Over a period of several months, we have entered into conversations with Government openly and honestly to try to find a resolution on legal aid which would protect the justice system.
"It is now clear that the Government has never sought to match that intention.
"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has put cuts before justice.
"What we have seen instead is the denigration of thousands of members of the profession, who work hard in the public interest, whether in civil or criminal courts, and have had to endure deeper cuts than anywhere else in the public sector."
Ms McGowan QC accused m inisters and civil servants of quoting "inaccurate figures" on legal aid spend per year compared with other countries.
She added: "A high quality justice system which works in the public interest is worth paying for and in any event is more than outweighed by the huge financial contribution which legal services make to UK GDP."
She went on: "The integrity, excellence and independence of the Bar is respected all over the world.
"It is responsible for generating significant revenue for our country and for promoting English law as well as adherence to the Rule of Law.
"Our Government has not only failed to recognise this domestically but, by perpetuating negative stereotypes about the profession at home, it is damaging the democratic values of which we should all be proud."
The Law Society, which represents some 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said while it welcomes some revisions made to the proposals, it continues to be concerned about proposals for flat fees in magistrates' courts and the Crown Court and a single national fixed fee for police station work.
Law Society President Nicholas Fluck said: " To maintain quality, it is vital that we have the most diverse range of solicitors possible in the system within the boundaries of long-term financial viability.
"The current proposals for a single national fixed fee for police station work will have a disproportionate effect on firms in high-cost areas where the cost of doing business is greater.
"It is unwise to risk tarnishing the respect in which our justice system both domestically and internationally is held by an apparent incentive to plead guilty, which could jeopardise the relationship of trust between clients and solicitors."
A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: "We agree criminal lawyers should be paid adequately for their work.
"The Bar Circuit Leaders published a letter today stating most criminal barristers' net earnings are around £35 to £40 an hour.
"Based on an eight hour day, £40 an hour equates to around £70,000 a year. And this doesn't come close to what QCs at the top earn.
"We have tried to ensure our proposals have more impact on high earners - 70% of criminal barristers contracted to Very High Cost Cases receive fee incomes of over £100,000, which is why we targeted the largest fee reductions at this type of work.
"Nor do we accept our proposed rates for more routine work are unjust. The minimum a QC would be paid for such a case is £306 each day.
"At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after our changes would still have one of the most generous.
"We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system and that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer. We have engaged constructively and consistently with lawyers - including revising our proposals in response to their comments - and to allege we have not is re-writing history."