Legal aid cuts risk tipping the scales of justice for all, say solicitors

Hugh Rowland, Gotelee Solicitors

Hugh Rowland, Gotelee Solicitors - Credit: Archant

Massive Government cuts to legal aid are already leading to miscarriages of justice, it has been claimed.

The Scales of Justice

The Scales of Justice - Credit: PA

These not only affect the recidivist offenders but also the usually law-abiding people who find themselves in a once-in-a-lifetime situation.

Suffolk solicitor Hugh Rowland, a member of the National Criminal Law Solicitors Association and partner at Gotelee in Ipswich, has spoken of the impact of the cutbacks on his profession and the liberty of defendants.

Mr Rowland said: “This country has a criminal justice system which is rightly the envy of the world.

That did not just happen.

“It is the result of a careful combination of checks and balances set in place over centuries.

“Key to the successful operation of the system is the ability of the citizen to defend himself against a prosecution brought by the State.

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“Without a strong, challenging and fearless defence, this would not be possible.

“Legal Aid was established just after the Second World War.

“It was designed to ensure that those charged with an offence who could not afford to pay for representation would have access to a lawyer.

“Also, that barristers and solicitors should receive an adequate remuneration for their services.

“Why then, you might ask, is the Government intent on attacking that right for all but those who can afford to pay for representation?

“There is now a real risk that Government reforms will decimate the provision of legal aid and create one law for the rich and another for the poor.

“So what is it all about? Why have we seen lawyers striking and demonstrating outside Courts? Why has the Secretary of State for Justice repeatedly had to defend his proposals in court before select committees and in the media?

“Faced with huge national debt, the Government has to make savings. We all know that.

“In broad terms, we accept that too. The NHS is a national treasure. Our education system has to be properly funded. “But what about criminal Legal Aid, a soft target?

“In wielding the axe to Legal Aid, we are told that:

“Firstly, the cost of the Legal Aid system has spiralled out of control and has become one of the most costly in the world.

“Secondly, we must encourage greater efficiency in the criminal justice system to reduce costs.

“These broad statements of principle are difficult to argue against in these austere times – if they are true.

“But, peel away the layers of the Government rhetoric and a different picture starts to emerge.

“The Government states its aim is to reduce spend by £220,000,000 by 2018/2019.

“The intention is to do that by imposing a system of contracting by tender which will reduce the number of solicitors’ firms offering criminal Legal Aid to just over 500.

“This is a reduction of two thirds on the current number of providers.

“Put in simple terms, this would be less than one contract held for each electoral constituency throughout England and Wales or one for every two cities and towns.

“But that is not all.

“The Government has already cut the rate of pay to solicitors and barristers by 8.75% this year. It is set to implement a further 8.75% cut in 2015.

“These cuts will be unsustainable and the impact on solicitors’ practices which offer criminal Legal Aid will be drastic and irreversible.

“Real jobs will be lost and real local businesses will fail.

“But, I hear you ask, what choice is there?

“The truth of the matter is that the comparison with other legal systems is like comparing apples with pears. Our legal system is different from others.

“For instance, the French system relies heavily on an examining magistrate to investigate offences and uncover the facts.

“Our system is an adversarial system which relies on the testing of the Crown’s case by the defence in court.

“The costs of the two systems are in fact not very different but they are divided up in different ways.

“But saving £220,000,000 has got to be worthwhile? Maybe, or maybe not.

“The truth is that a large proportion of that figure has already been saved by adjustments to the current system and the first round of cuts to fees.

“To embark on a wholesale slashing of the number of suppliers is unnecessary and will fatally unbalance the current system.

“Choice for the defendant who is unable to fund his own defence will be a thing of the past.

“But why does this all really matter?

“Some might say if a person commits a crime, then they are lucky to get any defence at all, let alone a Rolls Royce service.

“That would be true if we could have utter confidence that only the guilty are arrested and charged.

“But the courts are full of examples of people found not guilty after trial.

“Were they all just lucky? Are we prepared to take that risk?

“Doesn’t an important strand of our liberty depend on the maintenance of a motivated, professional and committed body “of solicitors and barristers who are prepared to stand up for the poor, the mentally ill and the homeless?

“Isn’t that the very backbone of a system of criminal justice which is built on testing the evidence?

“Innocent until proven guilty, yes, but what price innocence without the tools to take on the power of the State?

“The current proposals to eradicate a large part of the supplier base and bring hundreds of small businesses to their knees are unnecessary.

“The Ministry of Justice has taken a wrong turn.

“This is one of many wrong turns over the last 12 months, as this Government comes to the end of its term.

“The High Court has granted application after application for judicial review of the Minister’s decisions.

“Even as these words go to print, the Government is facing yet another challenge in the High Court to these proposals.

“Right-minded citizens should hope the challenge is successful and that the damage that has been caused by government reforms to, for instance, the probation service, is not replicated in the funding of criminal defence.”