Essex/Suffolk: Lawyers fear legal aid changes are ‘madness’
Proposed changes to the legal aid system will lead to people not being able to choose their own solicitor and could result in miscarriages of justice, legal experts in Essex have claimed.
The government has put forward a series of measures it hopes will shave £220million off the £1billion criminal legal aid bill paid by taxpayers every year. The proposals include reducing the number of law firms who can bid for legal aid work in Essex and Suffolk to seven and four respectively, and lawyers receiving the same rate irrespective of whether there is a guilty plea or a short trial.
But lawyers say the plans are “disastrous” for the legal system and will penalise the most vulnerable in society.
Kim Kennedy, a senior partner at John Fowlers Solicitors in Colchester, recently met with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to discuss his concerns.
He said: “It was clear Mr Grayling intends to press ahead with these changes, which the entire legal service fears will lead to a decline in the quality of legal representation people will receive.
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“At the moment, most people choose their solicitor through a recommendation but under the new proposals this choice will be taken away and defendants on legal aid will be allocated a lawyer.
“With only seven legal aid providers for the whole of Essex, firms will inevitably subcontract work out to cheapest bidder, regardless of the quality of the service.”
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Mr Kennedy added; “While there is lack of sympathy out there for criminals, these changes effect everyone, Every law-abidding citizen could find themselves with an unjustified claim against them. If it was your husband or child - you would want them properly represented.”
President of the Suffolk and north Essex Law Society, Jonathan Ripman, has similar reservations, saying the measure “will leave the justice system in the worse state it has ever been in.”
He added: “They are disastrous and will affect the most vulnerable people who need strong, independent lawyers to fight their corner.
“It’s as if the government wants people to be represented but not very well.”
Mr Ripman said the proposed changes, where people may be allocated a lawyer based many miles way from where they live, will be felt more acutely in rural areas, like Suffolk and north Essex, where transport is an issue.
He added: “The changes are very serious and I fear it will lead to a large number of miscarriages of justice. People will not be given strong advice, they may end up without representation or they may just say ‘I can’t afford it’ and feel it is easier to admit to a crime they did not commit.
“I can’t believe the government has not seen the problems that lie ahead . Everyone in the legal system believes these changes are madness.”
A consultation on the proposals ended yesterday with the measures expected to be introduced as soon as this September.
Responding to the quality fears being raised by lawyers, Mr Grayling said in a statement: “We will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial - these proposals will not affect that in any way. Professional, qualified lawyers will still be available, just as they are now, and contracts will not be awarded to lawyers who do not pass set quality standards.
“With one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world - about £1 billion a year is spent just on criminal legal aid - we can no longer avoid examining how to deliver better value for every penny of taxpayers’ money we spend.”