The Ministry of Justice held an initial consultation period which began in April 2013, which I consider to be rushed and ill-thought through. This consultation resulted in around 16,000 responses. These responses forced a u-turn on client choice and PCT. However, there was a query over whether these responses were actually read as many legal professionals who had emailed their responses were receiving negative read receipts. We are now at the end of the second consultation period for ‘Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps’, and I truly hope that you receive as many responses as the first, as the second consultation is as damning.
The cuts to legal aid (http://www.theguardian.com/law/2013/nov/01/lawyers-higher-legal-aid-fees-early-guilty-plea), allocation of numbers in each procurement area and the way firms obtain own client and duty contracts are abominable. This will lead to a financial catastrophe for most law firms. For the ‘lucky’ ones who survive, they will be dying a slow death, trying to make any profit they can in the circumstances. Those that survive the cull will inevitably have to make redundancies. This means that any firm would need to reduce salaries/staff numbers by 24% (http://www.lawsociety.org.uk/representation/policy-discussion/documents/annex-b—otterburn-and-ling-report) in order to have a chance to continue functioning. The suggested fee cuts (at varying levels depending on case type) are completely unsustainable. Lawyers are being forced out of the profession.
The legal aid spend is falling year on year (http://www.justice.gov.uk/downloads/publications/corporate-reports/lsc/legal-aid-stats-12-13.pdf), but the Ministry seem to be feeding the press that the amount is in fact increasing and spiralling out of control. Legal aid rates have not risen with inflation since 1990s. Future lawyers are not going to be able to maintain a secure career.
I attended an event this week held by the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (http://www.younglegalaidlawyers.org/onestepforwardtwostepsback). It was about social mobility in the legal aid field and how those who are studying, and want to make a career in legal aid, are struggling to maintain steady and secure employment.
I want to work in legal aid, but not for the money – there is no money to be made in legal aid, and particularly in crime. I want to work in legal aid because there are people who are accused of crimes, been ill-treated by the state or are in desperate need of help. Those people need lawyers. Those lawyers need to know that there is a viable profession for them to do so. I cannot afford to bring up and support my family on an extremely low wage, working long hours. Those that work in criminal law, do not work from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. There are days and nights were solicitors are on call, have to attend the police station, and then, with little or no sleep, have to attend Court the next day to represent someone. If these proposals come in, there will be NO next generation legal aid lawyers.
Removing legal aid for Judicial Review does not give an individual a fair playing field in Court. How would an individual, who had been wronged by the state, then pursue legal action? The simple answer is that they would not. The government would be given more powers of abuse than ever before, with no one to answer to. This makes an absolute mockery of something which our country stands for and believes in – the Rule of Law. Every citizen is subject to the law, and no ruler should be above the law.
Lord Neuberger said last month: “One must be very careful about any proposals whose aim is to cut down the right to judicial review. The courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive – central government, local government, or other public bodies. Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people who most need the protection of the courts of the ability to get legal advice and representation.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-24545584)
Removing legal aid for prison law is an absolute travesty. Take, for example, the young woman (amongst others) who had suffered serious sexual abuse at Yarls Wood Immigration Centre (http://legalvoice.org.uk/topstories/legal-aid-prison-law-nasty-politics/). With no legal aid, that abuse would continue and those victims would not have a voice . Another example: a woman who had been segregated (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-surrey-23778279) for more than five years at HMP Bronzefield . These are not meaningless complaints but serious cases of people are risk that need urgent assistance. The removal of legal aid will not allow this to happen.
The Ministry says that they need to encourage public confidence – when in fact, 2 in 3 people (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/survey-finds-two-in-three-people-oppose-legal-aid-cuts-8624684.html) are opposed to the cuts to legal aid. It is not legal aid that needs public confidence, it is the government.
If these proposals go through in their current form, our justice system, which is held to be the most sophisticated in the world, will be destroyed beyond repair.