The government’s changes to criminal legal aid are a ‘massive gamble’ that will have grave consequences for the whole justice system, the Law Society and prominent lawyers have warned as the first tranche of cuts for solicitors takes effect.

The initial 8.75% of the 17.5% fee cuts for police station and magistrates court work was introduced today, after solicitors voted to stage two more ‘days of action’ on 31 March and 1 April. Speaking at the Society’s legal aid conference this morning, Richard Atkinson, chair of the criminal law committee, said the ‘massive’ fee cuts coupled with the market restructuring are ‘akin to betting on a rank outsider in the Grand National’.

He questioned the rationale of proceeding with changes that even the government’s independent adviser, KPMG, had raised serious concerns about. He warned the cuts would lead to the ‘destruction of the system’ unless serious changes are made.

Meanwhile, a leading criminal solicitor has warned that the entire justice system is at risk of collapse.

Anthony Edwards (pictured), senior partner at London firm TV Edwards and a regular Gazette contributor, painted a bleak picture of a justice system, with lawyers providing a ‘service of sorts’ at reduced standards.

‘For the first time I believe that the whole existing system could collapse,’ Edwards told a symposium yesterday organised by Warwick University and Monash University. 

He said the 17.5% cuts over the next two years are a ‘devastating blow’. Practitioners in London, he said, are ‘having great difficulty understanding’ how they are going to survive the first cut of 8.75%.

To introduce the cuts ahead of the planned contracting and market changes, he said is ‘deeply ill-judged’.

Edwards doubted that firms will be able to increase their volumes of work in order to cope with the fee cuts, especially given falling prosecution rates.

‘It seems to me that it is very questionable what type of service will survive the next year. Quality must be substantially in doubt,’ said Edwards.

To reduce overheads, he predicted that increasing numbers of solicitors will work from home and there will be a growth in the already ‘substantial’ proportion of criminal lawyers working as self-employed agents.

The criminal bar, he said, cannot survive in its present form. Pay is ‘so low that no person can reasonably be expected to attend at a Crown court for a single case’.

The bar, he said, will have to shrink ‘substantially’ and become a ‘trials-only profession’.

‘Most barristers will first qualify as solicitors to gain their general experience. Only the best will transfer to the bar,’ he predicted.

Edwards called for a ‘substantial and urgent’ increase in the use of technology between solicitors, the police station and the courts in order to reduce overheads.

The use of video links, he said, is well established both from the courts to the prisons and from police stations to the courts. But the greatest saving in time and cost would be to link solicitors to police stations.

In addition, he said it should also be possible to conduct all preliminary hearings by video link at all levels of court.