The government will cut £23m from the £2.1bn legal aid budget by reducing fees for police station work, scrapping file review payments in criminal cases and consolidating committal hearing payments.

The government said that its reforms are ‘designed to help sustain the legal aid budget’ and ‘ensure that we focus criminal legal aid spending effectively’ in 2010/11. The Law Society said that the cuts are an ‘affront to justice’ and that ‘a fair trial for all will be an increasingly distant memory.’ Legal aid minister Lord Bach (pictured) told the Gazette that ‘too much’ of the legal aid budget is currently spent on criminal rather than civil matters. ‘Central to what we’re trying to do on legal aid is to prioritise civil legal aid – like debt, housing and employment advice,’ he said. ‘We are having to make savings elsewhere.’

The reforms have been announced following a Ministry of Justice consultation, Legal Aid: Funding Reforms. Proposals in the consultation, launched in August, attracted scathing criticism from legal aid practitioners and led to an exchange of letters between Law Society President Robert Heslett and Bach.

In its response to the MoJ consultation, Chancery Lane claimed that there was an ‘absence of any objective economic rationale’ for the cuts and pointed to National Audit Office (NAO) research that showed that criminal legal aid expenditure has decreased by 12% in real terms since 2003/04.

Heslett said this week: ‘It is difficult to understand how a government that can find £130bn to bail out banks cannot find one five thousandth of that sum to maintain a vital service that protects the rights of all our citizens. These cuts will have a devastating effect on justice.

‘The determination recklessly to proceed with these cuts entirely vindicates the NAO’s comments about the ministry’s lack of understanding of its suppliers. A number of the biggest and best known firms in London have already given up routine criminal defence work, and these latest cuts can only accelerate that trend.’

Bach said: ‘To be frank, I can’t see more money coming into legal aid in general over the next few years. There are tough times ahead. Legal aid will have to take its share of these tough times too.’

Bach said that the figure of £23m in cuts is not linked to the figure of £25m recently identified by the National Audit Office as the amount overcharged by solicitors for legal aid work in 2008/09.

The reforms include:

  • Reducing police station legal aid fees in the most expensive and oversubscribed areas
  • Ending the current fee arrangements that remunerate litigators for preparation for committal hearings. The change will see all working on committals combined into one fixed fee which will be paid out of the Litigator Graduated Fee Scheme
  • Scrapping file review fee payments for practitioners in criminal cases. Such payments do not apply in civil cases

The MoJ will also undertake a second consultation on reforms to Crown court advocacy fees. The MoJ said that, on average, advocates acting for the prosecution receive 18% less pay than if they were acting for the defence, which could be creating an incentive for barristers to favour defence work over prosecution work.

A separate response to the proposals on experts’ fees will be published in January.