The criminal defence community faces an anxious wait to find out if it has to absorb further legal aid fee cuts, a practitioner group has confirmed.
After contacting the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid Agency, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association says the government will not issue its response to consultations on reforming graduated fee schemes for advocates and litigators until after the 8 June general election.
In a statement on its website, the association said: 'We appreciate that these periods of uncertainty are stressful for members and we will continue to oppose any further cuts to legal aid.'
General election guidance issued two days after the prime minister's announcement of the election states that, during an election campaign, the government retains its responsibilities to govern, ministers remain in charge of their departments and essential business must carry on.
'However, it is customary for ministers to observe discretion in initiating any action of a continuing or long-term character,' the guidance adds.
'Decisions on matters of policy, and other issues such as large and/or contentious commercial contracts, on which a new government might be expected to want the opportunity to take a different view fom the present government, should be postponed until after the election, provided that such postponement would not be detrimental to the national interest or wasteful of public money.'
The ministry’s consultation on reforming the advocates' graduated fee scheme (AGFS) closed on 2 March. The scheme pays criminal defence advocates legal aid for representing those accused of crimes in the Crown court.
The consultation paper stated that the current scheme 'relies too heavily' on pages of prosecution evidence (PPE), served by the Crown Prosecution Service, as a means of deducing how complex individual cases are and, therefore, how much a defence advocate should be paid. It also relies on the number of witnesses to help determine the fee to be paid.
The new scheme would introduce a 'more sophisticated system' of classifying offences, based on the typical amoung of work required in each case. However PPE will continue to feature in drugs and dishonesty cases. It would also 'unbundle' several elements of the graduated fee.
The ministry's consultation on reforming the litigators' graduated fee scheme (LGFS) closed 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. The ministry also wants to cap court appointees’ costs at legal aid rates.