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Solicitors win legal aid challenge

Solicitors have won a High Court challenge over Government reform of the legal aid system.

The London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association told Mr Justice Burnett that decisions made by Chris Grayling - the Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor - would cause ''serious harm'' to the criminal legal aid system and the criminal justice system.

They said the consultation process adopted by Mr Grayling was unfair.

The judicial review claim, which was upheld in London today, concerned a decision taken in February relating to 525 Duty Provider Work contracts which involve contracts for advisory services in police stations and associated work.

Adam Chapman, head of public law at Kingsley Napley, who led the challenge, said later: " We are delighted with today's result. This is a significant judgment given the impact that the proposed reforms would have on solicitors firms - and, even more importantly, on access to justice.

"The judge found that the Ministry of Justice did not decide their reforms on the basis of the best possible information available. They chose not to consult on critical issues with those best placed to help them, criminal legal aid solicitors and the LCCSA and CLSA.

"In essence that is the reason why the judicial review challenge succeeded and why the Lord Chancellor must now conduct a proper consultation before his criminal legal aid 'reform' programme can proceed.

"In doing so he will have a legal duty 'conscientiously' to take into account the responses received. The LCCSA and CLSA will take an active part in that consultation and will be alert, with our help, to ensure that it is conducted fairly and lawfully."

Quashing the decision on the number of DPW contracts available, the judge said that the solicitors' case was that, in the context of a long-running consultation exercise - the outcome of which would transform the criminal legal aid landscape - it was incumbent on the Lord Chancellor to consult on the assumptions underlying the financial modelling undertaken.

They suggested that the reality was that many firms of solicitors would go out of business and deprive individuals of their current livelihoods.

Mr Justice Burnett concluded: "Something clearly did go wrong. The failure was so unfair as to result in illegality."

Lawyers for the Lord Chancellor had argued that the claimants and their individual members had every opportunity to place before the Ministry of Justice any material and comments they wished and, in the result, there was no procedural unfairness.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "This judicial review was not wholly successful - the claimants failed in their challenge to the fee cut. However, the judgment has raised some technical issues about the consultation process, which we are carefully considering.

"We will continue to implement reform of the criminal legal aid system. We must ensure legal aid is sustainable for those who need it, for those who provide legal services as part of it and for the taxpayer, who ultimately pays for it. Even after reform we would still have a very generous system at around £1.5 billion a year."

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