The largest criminal legal aid firms have added their weight to growing opposition to the government’s proposals to cut legal aid fees.
The Big Firms’ Group, whose 40 members carry out around 25% of criminal legal aid work, said imposing further cuts on the litigators’ graduated fee scheme (LGFS) without regard to the wider ramifications ‘is obtuse’. It urged the lord chancellor to meet with ‘all relevant stakeholders’ before imposing further cuts.
The group, in a statement on national firm Tuckers’ website, said: ‘We believe the amount spent on criminal legal aid has already fallen further and faster than the amount that the Ministry of Justice was targeting in the original Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps consultation of September 2013.
‘Based on the research by Oxford Economics, commissioned by the Law Society, there is every reason to believe that it will continue to do so – without the need for further cuts.
‘The Ministry of Justice needs to quickly abandon the false premise that the criminal justice system is sustainable on its current course. It is not.’
The Law Society, Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association have already issued a joint position statement opposing the ministry’s proposals.
A second 8.75% fee cut was suspended for 12 months in April last year. However, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said the lord chancellor was minded not to reinstate the second fee cut. This would be confirmed once the government considered the responses to the consultation, which closes on 24 March.
The ministry proposes to reduce the threshold for pages of prosecution evidence (PPE) from the current cap of 10,000 pages to 6,000 pages. It also wants to cap court appointees’ costs at legal aid rates.
The Big Firms’ Group said: ‘This latest proposal from the MoJ is targeted at a very small number of the overall cases – in a system in which many cases are already woefully underpaid and do not reflect the work that needs to be done.
‘It flies in the face of the longstanding rhetoric of the Legal Aid Agency, of solicitors having to accept a certain arbitrariness due to the “swings and roundabouts” nature of the fee structure. It ignores the wider perspectives of the already reducing spend on the criminal defence sector and the serious fissures manifesting themselves in the criminal justice system.
‘It is dishonest in its focus on the rise in high-value LGFS claims without acknowledging the corresponding savings in the [very high cost cases] spend.’
The statement added: ‘It genuinely seems as if the MoJ is deliberately trying to find the straw that will break the back of this long-suffering camel. It may have succeeded this time.’