Legal aid cuts are putting solicitors under ‘powerful economic pressure’ to persuade clients to plead guilty, a leading criminal lawyer has warned.
Paul Harris, president of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, told a meeting of over 200 barristers at the weekend that fee rates have reached an ‘irreducible minimum’.
Condemning the planned legal aid cuts, which the Ministry of Justice says are required to save £220m a year, Harris said the fees paid for advocacy are a ‘disgrace’.
‘Each year advocates are expected to do more for less,' he said. 'Going to court for successive hearings for just over £40 is beyond reason,’ he said.
Representatives from solicitors’ groups are scheduled to hold talks with the justice secretary Chris Grayling on Tuesday in a meeting secured by the Law Society.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: 'The Law Society has consistently opposed the proposed fee cuts. Our evidence demonstrates that the cuts pose a substantial risk to the sustainability of criminal defence providers.
'It is crucial that the lord chancellor continues to hear from frontline practitioners as they are at the heart of the criminal justice system.’
Harris told the weekend event organised by the Bar Council that under the ministry’s proposals, a lawyer in the magistrates’ court will be paid £258 whether the case is a guilty plea or a trial; £190 less than they would have been paid in 1978.
He condemned the MoJ’s ‘slash and burn’ approach to police station rates, which he said are to be cut by 35% to £160 a case, when some cases can require solicitors to attend repeatedly over weeks or months.
When it came to cuts to Crown court fees, his warning was stark.
‘We are being placed under powerful economic pressure to make our clients plead guilty,’ he said.
He gave the example of a three-day GBH trial with 200 pages of evidence, which under the new fees will pay an advocate 53% less than they are paid currently.
If the defendant in the same case pleads guilty, he said there would be a 12% rise in fee.
In the case of a serious sexual offence with 300 pages, he said a guilty plea will earn the lawyer a 59% fee increase while if the matter goes to trial they will face a 36% reduction.
Demonstrating the unity that the cuts have brought across the two professions, Harris stressed the need for an ‘independent and strong’ bar to enable a proper and effective quality justice system.
He said: ‘If Mr Grayling has achieved anything, he has driven the professions of solicitors and the bar together in a way that has not been seen for many years. We must stand together side by side fighting for justice.’
Harris said that unless solicitors and barristers do not get a ‘positive response and a willingness to properly engage’ they will hold a second date of protest action.
But he stressed: ‘It’s not about solicitors supporting the bar or the bar supporting the solicitors… it is about us all working together, leading our professions in a united movement to try to save the justice system.’
‘We need to shout it from the rooftops that this is about a reduction of state accountability… it’s about the state substantially increasing its power over the individual whilst at the same time removing the safety net for the most vulnerable, for the person inadvertently in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ he said.