Labour has promised to abandon the government’s plans for criminal legal aid contracts immediately if it is elected in May.
The party said it will also ’review’ the second proposed 8.75% fee cut, which is due this summer. And it will undertake an immediate review of how criminal legal aid is procured, ‘working closely with the profession, the judiciary and those who work in the justice system to find a more sustainable method for the future’.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan today accused the government of ‘making a pig’s ear of access to justice’.
‘Not only have their changes left many without access to justice, the farcical way they’ve gone about it has caused chaos and confusion, leaving those that work in the profession demoralised and undermining the system’s ability to deliver the justice.’
He added: ‘I don’t have a magic wand to wave. I can’t commit to reverse the £600m cuts to legal aid made by the Tories and Lib Dems. We will still have to take tough decisions on reducing the deficit.’
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said the Society, on behalf of its members, and justice, welcomed any opportunity for review and the restoration of access to justice for all.
He said court fee hikes of 600% from April spelt disaster, ‘pricing the public out of the courts and leaving small and medium-sized businesses saddled with debts they are unable to afford to recover’.
‘With many thousands no longer entitled to legal aid in civil matters, legal representation and redress through the courts is becoming a luxury and a preserve of the few.’
The London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association said they were pleased that Labour was taking heed of repeated warnings that the cuts could lead to miscarriages of justice.
LCCSA president Jonathan Black said: ‘Obviously we’ll need to see that these promises are fulfilled if Labour is voted into power in May. Today’s pledge is at least an encouraging sign that we may be able to salvage a just and fair system within the existing financial constraints.’
As the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta approaches, Black said the groups were determined its legacy is upheld.
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: ’Nothing would change for people accused of a crime. Anyone suspected of a crime would still have access to a legally aided lawyer of their choosing, just as they do now.
’This government inherited an unprecented financial crisis which left no choice but to find significant savings in everything we do. We have consulted extensively over the last two years and introduced support measures to help lawyers in the transition to the new system. At the end of the day we have to make sure the legal aid system is fair for those who need it, the lawyers who work within it and also taxpayers, who ultimately pay for it.’
Labour’s pledge comes as the Society and practitioner groups await a High Court judgment on their challenges to the lord chancellor’s decision to press ahead with two-tier contracts.
Publicly funded criminal legal aid work is currently carried out under contract with the Legal Aid Agency. Under the lord chancellor’s plans, there will be two types of contract – Own Client Work and Duty Provider Work.
On 27 November 2014 the government commenced a tender process for 527 Duty Provider Work contracts, under which successful bidders would be contracted to provide a share of advice and assistance in police stations in a particular area.
The tender process is currently suspended pending the outcome of the judicial review, expected next month.