Criminal solicitors’ groups have begun a legal challenge to the Ministry of Justice’s decision to press ahead with legal aid cuts.
Issuing proceedings for judicial review today, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) and the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) claimed the consultation that preceded the cuts was conducted unlawfully.
They claim an economic report prepared for the MoJ by accountants KPMG was ‘unfairly and unlawfully’ withheld by the ministry until after the consultation was closed.
The report, designed to analyse the government’s fee cuts and contracting reforms and advise on the number of legal aid contracts that would be offered, highlighted flaws in the proposals and suggested the model was unworkable in many geographical areas.
It was published in February alongside the government’s final proposals, according to the LCCSA and CLSA, and was ‘incorrectly’ applied to justify the 17.5% cuts and two-tier contracting model.
The action follows a call for funds that has so far raised over £90,000 from the profession to fund the case.
President of the LCCSA Nicola Hill said: ‘It must hit home for the justice secretary that he’s not a law unto himself. He can’t impose swingeing criminal legal aid cuts without having done so fairly.’
She accepted the need to make savings within the criminal justice system, but drew the line at cuts that she claimed prevent lawyers from providing high-quality representation.
‘Quite simply, Mr Grayling pushed these changes through without regard to legality,’ she said.
CLSA chairman Bill Waddington said: ‘Our concern is to protect the public interest and prevent the dismantling of the criminal justice system, considered up until now to be the best in the world.’ He said the profession’s offers to engage with government have been ‘ignored or dismissed’.
‘We take this action to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals who find themselves at the wrong end of a state-funded prosecution and above all to protect the rule of law,’ said Waddington.
In addition to the legal challenge, solicitors in many parts of the country have refused to accept new Crown court cases, leaving defendants unrepresented.
This has resulted in an 81-year-old man appearing undefended on attempted murder charges and a scuffle in a Birmingham court when an unrepresented defendant did not follow court rules.
The action comes as the government faces an argument with the bar over the 30% cuts to legal aid fees paid for the most serious criminal case, leaving defendants in fraud trials without representation.
Overturning a Crown court judge’s decision to stay one case affected, the president of the Queen’s Bench Division Sir Brian Leveson urged the ministry and the profession to resolve the ‘impasse’ that ‘stands in the way of the delivery of justice’.
The cuts are designed to save £215m a year.
An MoJ spokesperson said: 'Legally-aided lawyers are still available to anyone facing criminal investigation that needs one.'
He said the ministry has 'engaged constructively and consistently' with lawyers and amended its original proposals for change in collaboration with representative bodies, including the Law Society, LCCSA and CLSA who all had chance to 'air their views'.
In addition to the KPMG report, he said the ministry commissioned further economic research jointly with the Law Society in September, which was publicly available as part of our final response on legal aid reform.
He added: 'We will, of course, study the legal challenge closely.'
A Law Society spokesperson said that the Society is aware of the proposed action. 'The Society does have mechanisms in place for supporting litigation in various ways, but does not comment on individual applications.'