Legal Aid: Parliament Debate in Westminster Hall – 4th September 2013

Some notes from today’s parliamentary debate in relation to the government’s consultation paper and proposals to reform the legal aid system.

Karl Turner opens today’s debate:
“Stack it high and sell it cheap”

Without this debate and that of the backbenchers, the government would not have dealt with the issues raised. We give thanks to Rachel Bentley’s e-petition, which now has over 103,000 signatures. We also pay tribute to Michael Turner QC in uniting the two professions, still the Lord Chancellor refused to meet him. Michael Turner has never been rude about the Lord Chancellor, but what he has done is dared to criticise the government. The Lord Chancellor does not like to be criticised. The Joint Committee on Human Rights report will be ignored by the Government, and the Lord Chancellor will no doubt plow on with these changes. The very least the Lord Chancellor should do is delay these changes until JCHR report reviewed.

These changes come off the back of LASPO, which has been legal aid slashed. It has removed many areas of civil legal aid from scope. Many people are already being denied access to justice when these changes kicked in. People cannot get lawyers but are desperate for legal advice. Many constituents are turning to MPs to help with complex areas of law, rather than lawyers.

We could signpost to CAB but due to budget cuts, charities and local centres have been slashed. These are now closed or buckling under pressure of reduced resources and vastly increased referrals.

We are accused of scaremongering, but there has been a 30% fall in civil, and a 12% fall in criminal, legal aid. Transforming Legal Aid consultation paper goes beyond this and will destroy the Criminal Justice System. The Government have not indicated from where they want those savings found. This will cost taxpayer more in the long run.

The President of Supreme Court supports that legal aid will continue to decrease costs. If the govt would sit down with the profession, they may be able to discuss where the savings might be made.

The Lord Chancellor has acknowledged that stripping legal aid for prisoners is nothing more than ideology. Matrix Chambers & Bindmans have said that these changes are nonsense.

I agree with Bill Waddington of the CLSA who says that it is wrong of the government to concentrate on savings. Figures are going down and will continue to reduce.

There are inefficiencies are court and people trying to represent themselves, the Minister should concentrate on these problems. People have no choice but to represent themselves, this costs the court system more money. Staffing levels are down also.

These proposals will specifically hit our high street firms. Since 2010, the courts are stretched. The proposals are putting more pressure on court clerks attempting to advise clients.

48% of criminal legal aid costs account for 1% of all cases and these are the cases we should look to cut costs on.

Last year, the audit office found that cost of Legal Aid system is average compared to other countries.

Govt should concentrate their attention on Very High Cost Cases (VHCC).

It is right that those who can afford to pay legal fee do so, but legal aid should not be sold off to the lowest bidder.

It is very clear to me that there is a conflict if the same firms providing criminal defence are running prisons. Quality and local expertise will be outbid.

Legal aid has changed over the years, but provides a pivotal public service.

This is also an attack on the innocent. Those that are guilty are equally entitled to legal representation. The less well-off will suffer more. The changes will lead to the rich having access to the courts. This is simply not justice.

All lawyers earn salaries like the PM’s brother. This is not true. They earn a modest wage, often taking less than a nurse or a teacher. Proposals will see less BME’s coming in to the profession.

John Cooper QC says that if the proposals go through, we will be excluding those BME and those who cannot afford it coming into the profession. We will be the NHS of the law.

People’s liberty is one of the strongest, therefore vital.

Any Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) proposal would deny right to choose. I am concerned that it seems to be an outdated concept of Tesco-style justice systems. A defendant is innocent until proven guilty. We should be looking to protect that system.

There are many aspects of these proposals that I do not agree with, but denying prisoners access to justice goes against everything I represent. We live in a civilised society. The reforms will mean that justice stops at the prison gates if the government plans go ahead. Denying prisoners legal aid will save just £4 million – it would be flippant to say it is peanuts, but “savings at what cost”?

The government proposals will limit Judicial Review from individuals to those who have permission from a Judge. This will limit the excellent work and assistance that Shelter provide to around 15,000 people a year. The government are attacking the most vulnerable people at times when they need assistance the most.

The Lord Chancellor has clearly thought about these proposals since Backbench Business Debate, where there was overwhelming criticism. I was pleased that Lord Chancellor u-turned on client choice. We do not know what the impact of that will be as the Lord Chancellor may still plow ahead with PCT.

Defence lawyers are being blamed for delays, but those at the CPS, and I am not criticising colleagues, are rushed off their feet, terribly understaffed, and simply delay the courts.

The Law Society came up with a much better alternative which maintains choice.

This is our justice system and rural areas will become advice deserts. Whatever changes come in, they will have to incorporate the Welsh language.

PCT will damage the criminal justice system. The market will be dominated by the usual suspects – Serco, Capita, G4S. The proposals will seek to impose a further 17.5% cut. It will be taken over by less qualified people providing a less qualified service. Quantity will trump quality each and every time.

Perversely propose the same fee to be paid for a guilty plea or a contested trial. This will lead to undue pressure on clients to plead guilty. The client may misconceive that it is a financial incentive and that the advice given may not have been the correct one.

Karl Turner is asked to sum up his remarks – “The reality is that people will suffer and I hope that the government listen. I hope in an announcement, which is due tomorrow, that he will bury this idea of PCT.”

David Lammy:
Let us remain committed to quality in this system.

Should PCT always lead to a reduction in client choice? Not only are we entitled to a fair trial, but we must be seen to have a fair trial.

If the Department plans to put the criminal justice system out to tender and a guarantee of a share of work, then by necessity, choice is being limited. The concern remains regarding choice. That establishment of choice goes back to Magna Carta.

Tendering and guaranteeing of work without quality control, will lead to less fair system. Professionals will compete on price and not quality. The lower they bid, the fewer resources they will have for each case.

This is why when we put PCT in school meals, we ended up with turkey twizzlers. This is why when we put PCT to cleaning the NHS, we ended up with MRSA.

David Lammy continues saying the banks should fund fraud cases by saying “this would half the legal aid savings”.

Speaking about Judicial Review, he says: “This affects us all. If the state comes to me to take my kids away, I would be seeking JR. If the state wants to demolish my house to make way for HR2, I would be seeking JR. If the state is unwilling to provide a care home for my mother, I would be seeking JR.”

Kate Green:
Access to legal aid will be affected
The representation of prisoners is classed as a form of criminal legal aid, but the skill set required is much more akin to civil. I am afraid that national firms will lack that kind of skill.

Children and young offenders need good quality representation with a specialist advocate who is used to working with children. That advocate needs time to build a relationship with that person. I would be very keen to hear about specialist advocates.

Old, disabled and unwell prisoners will also be affected. A member of my constituency who is unwell and disabled is unable to cooperate in programmes in prison. He cannot be moved until he completes programmes. That is mad for the prison service.

Andy Slaughter:
Retaining choice is a step forward but will not resolve problems.
Mr Slaughter gives thanks to speakers, of whom not one has supported the government’s proposals.

It is a scandal that the government has not given this much more time. This should have been the subject of primary legislation. The Lord Chancellor is simply wrong to say that it is for costs that we must hurry these through.

Given that choice is back in, what is the savings now?
What effect is the second consultation going to have on the timetable of implementation?
What will the new tendering regime look like?
Is anything going to be done on the issue of specialism?
What are the additional costs of litigants in person?
What the govt are doing here is hardwiring inefficiencies and injustices into the criminal system?

Solicitors will not be able to work at these rates as costs are just too low.

Another issue is defendants’ costs orders. A defendant may pay privately, but when acquitted will only recover 25% of actual cost.

The government should be improving administration and justice, but instead are putting delays and uncertainty into our system.

Mr Slaughter mentions this article by Stephen Sedley http://www.lrb.co.uk/v35/n17/stephen-sedley/beware-kite-flyers and says “The rule of law, like everything else, would be negotiable.”

Minster, Jeremy Wright:
Generous

In response to Karl Turner and David Lammy, he says that there are, of course, inefficiencies of courts and that this is an area we need to look at. We also need to look at VHCC, which we are. Those cases, on their own, will not do the job of making necessary savings.

No part of the proposals say that quality is not important. Those providing legal aid services will be monitored.

Those who will not be entitled to legal aid will be those with a disposal income £37,500 or above, which I think is very generous.

There is a tradition in English law that you are innocent until proven guilty. We are not changing that presumption. People with the means to pay should not have access to tax payers funding, if they find themselves guilty. If they find themselves innocent then a refund will be considered.

In relation to prison legal aid, the nature of case is important. When a prisoner’s liberty is considered, they should have access to legal aid. There are a whole range of other complaints that should be funded by other means.

In relation to PCT, should we deal with legal aid reforms in this way? There are number of things that we will be considering very carefully. You will have to be patient and we will listen to your views.

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3 thoughts on “Legal Aid: Parliament Debate in Westminster Hall – 4th September 2013

  1. Pingback: Save UK justice: The Blogs | ilegality

  2. Pingback: British Summer Time | Gemma's Blog - thoughts on the Criminal Justice System

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