The profession’s increasingly vociferous campaign against the cuts outlined in the Transforming Legal Aid consultation reached a crescendo last week, ahead of tomorrow’s deadline for responses.

Magistrates allege the changes could lead to situations where the only legally qualified person in court is the court legal adviser or the district judge. Black and minority ethnic, and young lawyers claim the proposals are potentially unlawful and will drive lawyers out of publicly funded work.

Prominent civil rights firm Birnberg Peirce, meanwhile, said the proposed introduction of a residence test for civil legal aid is potentially ‘unlawful, discriminatory and unworkable’ and would leave vulnerable victims without redress. These concerns were echoed by the Law Society.

Responding to the consultation, the Magistrates’ Association said ‘significant’ savings could be made if the classification of summary offences was extended to allow more cases to be dealt with in the magistrates’ courts rather than the Crown courts.

But it expressed ‘grave reservations’ about the proposed model for price-competitive tendering. Removing client choice could prove ‘perversely costly’, since a client’s ability to choose an advocate they know means cases are dealt with faster.

The association is ‘perturbed’ by the extent to which the forecast impact of the changes appears to be ‘highly speculative’ and based on a ‘very slender evidence base’.

The Young Barristers Committee and Young Legal Aid Lawyers predict that the fee cuts will force young lawyers out of publicly funded work and make it a financially unviable option for future students without private means.

Jo Sidhu QC, co-chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers, said the government has ‘seriously underestimated’ the disproportionate impact that the proposals will ‘inevitably’ have on BME clients and lawyers. It is planning a council of war against the changes at parliament on 11 June.

Sidhu said the Ministry of Justice’s analysis of the impact is ‘fatally flawed’ and ‘unsafe’. The government’s failure to adequately consider the impact on BME clients and providers could leave the consultation open to legal challenge, he stressed.

The Black Solicitors Network highlighted the importance for many BME clients of being able to choose a lawyer who speaks their native language or shares their cultural perspective. Losing this, the BSN warned, will disadvantage clients and increase the cost to the justice system.

Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, added that the changes will turn the clock back in respect of diversity, which will have longer-term repercussions for the makeup of the judiciary and public confidence in the system.

Birnberg Peirce described the introduction of a residence requirement for civil legal aid as ‘potentially unlawful, discriminatory and unworkable’. It would deny access to justice to victims of ‘egregious abuses of power’ by agents of the British state, including the police, the Home Office and the secret intelligence services.

It said the application is ‘likely’ to lead to a breach of the UK’s international treaty obligations to ensure equal access to justice for those most at risk – including under the ECHR, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Protocol on Trafficking.

Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said the test threatens to prevent some of the most vulnerable people in society from obtaining legal aid. Chair of the Law Society’s children law committee, Denise Lester, agreed, describing the proposals as ‘xenophobic’ and ‘completely contrary’ to the rule of law.

  • Four out of five adults in England and Wales would be unable to pay for a lawyer were they accused of a crime, according to a survey of the likely impact of the government’s planned legal aid cuts. They would have to represent themselves or even remortgage their homes, it revealed. A Populus poll commissioned by the six bar circuits and Criminal Bar Association showed that, under the reforms, 80% of adults would be unable to afford the average £10,000 legal fees incurred for a three-day trial.
  • Lawyers across the country will unite for a 'minute of unity' at 9.59am tomorrow to draw attention to the cuts, which they say will result in a drop in quality. The Law Society has backed the action, organised by Exeter solicitor Rachel Bentley, who also set up the e-petition.