The fight against the government’s Transforming Legal Aid reforms heated up last week as a consultation on the proposals closed with more than 13,000 responses understood to have been lodged with the Ministry of Justice.
Although the ministry could not confirm the figure, this would be more than double the 5,000 received in the consultation on civil reforms that led to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
All three main legal representative bodies condemned the government’s proposals, which they said would damage access to justice and the worldwide reputation of the UK legal system.
The Law Society branded the proposals ‘unworkable’, warning that they could push the justice system ‘beyond breaking point to a devastating collapse’.
It published two sets of independent analysis, from consultants Andrew Otterburn and Vicky Ling, and business advisory firm Deloitte, demonstrating the impact that the proposals would have on the profession.
Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff said the Society is prepared to discuss other ways to make the £220m savings sought by government, but stressed that any plan must abandon the removal of client choice, which she described as ‘a red line’.
In its 150-page response, backed by economic and academic analysis, the Bar Council savaged the ‘muddled’ and ‘fundamentally flawed’ reforms, which it said are a ‘breathtakingly convoluted way of finding savings’ and ‘fail to consider hard evidence’.
Bar regulator the Bar Standards Board, meanwhile, said the plans to pay advocates the same fee for a trial as for a guilty plea could push innocent people to plead guilty and lead to a ‘crisis in public confidence’ in the justice system.
The Chartered Institute of Legal Executives called the reforms an ‘outrageous and disturbing attack’ and voiced concern that they could be introduced without parliamentary scrutiny.
The judiciary also added its voice to criticism. The Council of Circuit Judges, which represents senior and circuit judges who sit in the Crown, county and High courts, said that price-competitive tendering is a ‘dangerously inappropriate model’ that would lower standards.
It also warned that the removal of legal aid for prison law could lead to riots as ‘disgruntled prisoners, with no satisfactory avenue of redress, take out their frustration on the fabric of the prison’.
The Magistrates’ Association had earlier warned that the changes could lead to a scenario in which the only legally qualified person in court is the clerk or the district judge.
Charities including the Children’s Society, Kids Company and Shelter, as well as human rights groups such as Liberty and Reprieve, also condemned the proposals.