The government is to press ahead with reform of legal aid fees paid to solicitors in criminal cases - despite 97% of submissions to a consultation vehemently opposing the plans. Representative bodies have this afternoon condemned the decision as 'reckless', claiming it places justice in jeopardy. 

In a response published today to proposals for the litigators graduated fee scheme LGFS), the government said it would reduce the cap on the number of claimable pages of prosecution evidence from 10,000 to 6,000. However, a second fee cut of 8.75%, suspended in April 2016, will not be reinstated, the government confirmed.

The LGFS remunerates litigators for Crown court work. The current scheme was introduced in 2008. In the 2015-16 financial year, the government spent £341m on cases that completed in the LGFS.

In total, 1,005 responses to the consultation paper were received with the views expressed ‘almost entirely against the proposal’, the Ministry of Justice said. 

An impact assessment in February estimated that legal aid providers conducting cases with at least 6,000 of prosecution evidence would receive around £26m to £36m less for LGFS payments. However, in today’s response the government claimed around half of the firms currently holding a contract will be ‘unaffected by the proposal’.

Law Society president Joe Egan said the government was now facing a 'ticking time bomb’ in the criminal courts. ‘More pages of evidence are being served by the CPS because cases are now more complicated. Terror cases, fraud cases and serious historic sex cases require a large amount of work, for which solicitors should be paid. Defence solicitors have not received any fee increase since 1998,’ he said.

‘The number of solicitors specialising in criminal law has already plummeted, and further reckless cuts are likely to accelerate this impending crisis. The ageing demographic of the defence community means the government is facing a ticking time bomb in terms of being able to continue to meet its obligations to provide legal aid for those accused of wrongdoing who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer themselves.’

Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, told the Gazette: ‘It is inconceivable that the government is proceeding with such huge cuts at a time when the criminal justice system is in meltdown.’

She added: ‘Much of the work undertaken by criminal legal aid practitioners is grossly underfunded and subsidised by the larger and more serious cases.

‘Perversely, this was a scheme introduced by the government on the basis that there would be "swings and roundabouts". The swings have now been removed and so the roundabouts may well cease to turn as the public find it increasingly difficult to find representation for cases threatening their livelihood and liberty. A stark warning to all.’

In today’s announcement the MoJ claimed there is ‘no evidence that the rise in PPE reflects a proportionate increase in workload for providers’.

‘It is understood that large volumes of served evidence can contain material of less relevance to the client’s defence, and in many cases is capable of being searched electronically, e.g. downloads of the entire contents of a mobile phone including thousands of irrelevant SMS messages and pictures,’ the MoJ said.

The Criminal Bar Association joined the criticism, saying the legal aid system is at ‘breaking point’.

‘There should be investment in criminal legal aid, not cuts or reductions of any kind. We are unified with our solicitor colleagues in our aim to ensure that legal aid survives, and thrives,’ it added.