The Law Society has reacted with dismay to confirmation that the new government will press ahead with legal aid reforms that Chancery Lane alleges will seriously undermine the criminal justice system.
Changes confirmed this lunchtime in a ministerial statement from legal aid minister Shailesh Vara include further fee cuts from 1 July of 8.75% for solicitors representing those accused; and a reduction from 1,600 to 527 in the number of contracts for solicitors providing 24-hour cover at police stations.
The Ministry of Justice has decided not to reduce advocacy fees 'at this stage’.
An independent review will commence in July 2016 to assess the impact of the fee cuts and dual contracting model.
Vara said: ‘Although the transition will be challenging, the changes we are pressing ahead with today are designed to ensure that we have a system of criminal legal aid that delivers value for money to taxpayers, that provides high-quality legal advice to those that need it most, and that puts the profession on a sustainable footing for the long term.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: 'We are deeply concerned not only for the immediate future of the justice system, but for its continued survival in years to come. The government’s cuts could undermine the criminal justice system to the point that it may no longer deliver fair outcomes.’
Caplen said the Law Society is writing to lord chancellor Michael Gove to convey its disappointment, raise its serious concerns, and ’urge him to think again’.
He added: 'Twenty years without any increase in fees, followed by two sets of cuts since 2010, had already pushed firms’ viability to breaking point. Now many solicitors practices undertaking this vital work in communities around the country will be forced to close. Others will struggle to survive as a result of this further 8.75% cut in fees.
'We have shared evidence with the MoJ from over 120 firms who are already suffering as a result of the previous round of cuts. The evidence shows that firms are on the edge of financial viability, and these cuts are likely to lead to bankruptcies, firms leaving the market, redundancies and a real impact on the quality of service. We called for the government urgently to review this evidence.’
Before reaching its conclusion, Vara said the MoJ examined changes to its forecast legal aid expenditure, changes to the existing market, provider withdrawal rates and reasons, contract extension acceptance and early information from the duty provider contract tender.
Vara said: ‘This reassured us that legal aid reforms so far have not had any substantial negative impact on the sustainability of the service.’
The Legal Aid Agency announced today it had received 'sufficient bids to undertake a viable competition'. It received 1,099 bids for duty contracts from over 500 organisations.
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) were ‘bitterly disappointed’ by the lord chancellor’s decision.
LCCSA president Jonathan Black said: ‘In our meeting with him he indicated that the ship had already left the harbour. Our concern as expressed to him is that the proposed regime will sail it straight into an iceberg leading to the sinking of a profession.’
He added: ‘We understand that the advocates fee cut has not been affected and that he was persuaded that savings could be made elsewhere. This was to maintain the quality of advocacy services.
‘It is disappointing that he would not consider the same argument in respect of litigation services, the provision of which will be further impacted as a result of this cut.’
CLSA chairman Bill Waddington said the two-tier contract system would see at least two-thirds of firms out of business within a short space of time. 'The further cut of 8.75% will place even the most slick operation in financial difficulty.'
The Criminal Bar Association said it regretted the MoJ’s decision to press ahead with the duty provider scheme and impose further fee cuts on ‘hard-pressed litigators’.
CBA chairman Tony Cross said: ‘The executive of the CBA will be discussing our response at the earliest opportunity, including further consultation with our membership.
‘We acknowledge the secretary of state for justice’s welcome recognition as to the critical importance of quality advocacy in our criminal justice system.’
The Bar Council was ‘pleased’ the MoJ had agreed not to proceed with cuts to the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme and was ‘grateful’ to the lord chancellor for listening to, and acting upon, the bar’s concerns.
Bar chairman Alistair McDonald QC said: 'The Bar Council continues to have grave concerns about the effects upon solicitor colleagues of further fee cuts and the implementation of the dual contracting scheme.
'We remain convinced that these measures are likely seriously to damage access to justice and the provision of high-quality advocacy in England and Wales.’