After shooting civil legal aid to smithereens the government now has the criminal bar in its sights. Twice in the past week lord chancellor and justice secretary Chris Grayling has indicated that there is not enough money for criminal legal aid - and cuts have to be made.
To The Sunday Times, he started off saying all the right stuff about justice and fair representation in criminal trials. 'There must always be the right to a defence. It is our guarantee that we will seek to ensure justice is done. We may sometimes find it distasteful, we may hate the people we are defending, but it is an essential part of our system.'
He continued: 'Access to justice and fair representation are fundamental, non-negotiable. They must be provided to those that need them most, where liberty is at stake.' He even praised the lawyers: 'We have the best lawyers in the world. London is probably the leading global centre for legal services. Students come from around the world to learn our approach. None of that must change.'
But, he goes on - and it is a big but - the price of justice appears to be too high and the and taxpayer, he says can no longer afford to pay for it.
He rightly pointed out that a large proportion of the £1bn spent each year on criminal legal aid is 'swallowed up by a small number of high-profile, expensive cases'. The solution, he mooted, was to allow fewer cases to employ the skills of a silk or 'a legal Rolls-Royce' as he put it, or to instruct teams of lawyers.
I am not sure how many criminal cases Grayling has watched lately, but very few have the teams of lawyers that he suggests - it is simply not economic for barristers to be accompanied by a solicitor, and solicitor advocates will be on their own too. I am told that it is often an uphill battle to get a silk.
Grayling continued his theme talking to BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday. Basically, he is saying that people should be represented, but unless they can afford it, they are not entitled to the best.
The Crown Prosecution Service annual report shows that just under 20% of defendants in the Crown court are acquitted. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty - shouldn't they be entitled to the best lawyers to defend them? In these times of austerity, will Grayling seek to apply the same measures to the CPS as to the criminal bar and to solicitor advocates, or will the courts witness the dropping away of equality of arms in criminal trials, where the state would be represented by a QC and the defendant by someone more junior?
And does it signal an intention that the Ministry of Justice and other government departments will no longer seek to avail themselves of the services of the likes of Jonathan Sumption QC when they have a case to answer themselves? It is no surprise that Grayling is seeking to cut criminal fees. His intention was made clear at the end of last year, when he slipped out figures on the lawyers who earn the most from legal aid to a couple of right-wing papers.
There may be a case for removing or cutting silks' fees, but the way to do it is not through kite-flying articles in the press and on the radio. Grayling should engage properly with the professions and tell them exactly what he trying to do. He should also, maybe, start listening to what they have to say about where money can be saved.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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