Government reforms to legal aid are penalising successful defences, writes Gemma Blythe
Rejoice! We have a new Lord Chancellor – the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP. What a fantastic year for him to take up the role, which marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Our Great Charter was created to protect fundamental rights and to provide swift access to justice.
However, our newly-appointed justice secretary has announced that a further legal aid fee cut, at a rate of 8.75 per cent, will be implemented on 1 July 2015 – the second set of cuts for criminal legal aid in a year. These cuts are the exact opposite of everything Magna Carta stands for.
Just a week before these cuts come into effect, Gove gave a speech at the Legatum Institute. He said: ‘There are two nations in our justice system at present. On the one hand, the wealthy, international class who can choose to settle cases in London with the gold standard of British justice. And then everyone else, who has to put up with a creaking, outdated system to see justice done in their own lives.’
He is right. Those who cannot afford to pay for a solicitor and those who are not entitled to legal aid are suffering at the hands of our government. The Law Society president responded to Gove’s reference of a two-tier legal system and said: ‘Last year 600,000 people were denied legal aid who would have been entitled to it in the past. This includes people who have had catastrophic injuries and victims of domestic violence. It is no wonder that the UK justice system is being labelled ‘two tier’, which is damaging our reputation as the best legal system in the world.’
Our government should make sure they are protecting the vulnerable, those without sufficient income, and victims of abuse, which includes defendants.
A recent case highlighted by Solicitors Journal (see pages 10 and 11) has shown how government reforms to legal aid are penalising successful defences. The Crown Prosecution Service made a decision to discontinue prior to trial, no ‘trial fee’ was incurred, which resulted in the total litigator fee amounting to £330.33 plus VAT. The law firm involved, Bindmans, worked for just £4.66 per hour. Meanwhile, the barrister instructed received a total of £194 plus VAT (or £66 after travel costs), a rate of just £1.50 per hour. The cuts to legal aid will only exacerbate this problem.
Paralegals, students, and lawyers, the Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) are dedicated to legal aid. I recently attended a YLAL meeting in Kent, where I met a student who is passionate about legal aid and in the middle of her final legal practice course exams. Her wish is to work in the legal aid sector, but she is unsure if she will be able to survive on an unlivable wage.
Today, there is vast uncertainty in legal aid work. However, it is encouraging to note a large number of people are campaigning for access to justice and that there are still students who want to work in the legal aid sector.
Long live legal aid. SJ
Gemma Blythe is a law student at the University of Kent and a committee member of the YLAL