Warning over legal aid reform plans
Government plans to overhaul legal aid threaten to destroy the "world-renowned" British justice system, barristers have told ministers.
The Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, has published its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation on legal aid reform, which includes paving the way for lawyers to compete for contracts.
The 150-page response said price competitive tendering (PCT) promotes the "lowest possible quality of service" and will result in further changes to civil legal aid, hitting society's most vulnerable people.
Other changes will see criminal defendants living in households with a disposable income of £37,500 or more stopped from automatically accessing legal aid, while prisoners' rights to the support will also would be curbed.
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.
"PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no Government should be proud."
She added: "The proposals simply do not have a sufficient evidence base on which to attract support. We believe that if these proposals are implemented as they stand, the system will go very badly wrong. Once implemented, these measures cannot be easily reversed."
In its response to the consultation, the Bar Standards Board (BSB), the body responsible for regulating barristers, said plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a "guilty" or "not guilty" plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty.
Bar Standards Board chair Baroness Ruth Deech said: "These reforms may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial. While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public, and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly, remain of the utmost importance."
Mr Grayling said: "We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid. These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone's right to a fair trial."