Criminal legal aid cuts will not affect the quality of lawyers, according to the legal aid minister Shailesh Vara.
The former City solicitor, who took over the legal aid brief from Lord McNally in the recent reshuffle, told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal and Constitutional Affairs that those who qualify for legal aid will continue to get a ‘world class’ service, despite the planned £220m cuts.
He said officials are currently analysing the ‘roughly 2,000 responses’ received to the second consultation on the proposals and the government expects to publish its response in the ‘near future’.
Vara (pictured) assured the profession: ‘We have been listening and we will continue to do so.’ He said: ‘We want to ensure the long-term sustainability of the legal profession in the difficult environment that it faces,’ insisting that cuts were needed due to the financial situation.
The Law Society’s deputy vice president, Jonathan Smithers, stressed the ‘extremely challenging’ impact the cuts will have on solicitors. ‘We know from the evidence we are collecting that many firms will struggle to survive even the first cut, which is likely to affect the supplier base very considerably,’ he said.
Many firms, he suggested, can only continue to provide legal aid services because they cross-subsidise with other parts of work.
Smithers raised concerns over the introduction of a single flat fee regardless of plea, which he said ‘cannot be justified in the interests of justice’. He said the proposed national fixed fee for police station work was ‘unsustainable’ and questioned the lack of escape fees for this work.
But Vara stressed that with the cuts to very high cost case (VHCC) work, the government had tried to ensure that high earners bore the brunt of the cuts.
Vara claimed that 17% of barristers received a six-figure fee income last year, solely from criminal legal aid, and that around two thirds of criminal legal aid barristers doing VHCCs receive fee incomes of over £100,000.
One case, he said, cost £8.5m and would still cost £6m after the changes, and the top three cases cost the taxpayer £21m. After the cuts, he said, the cost of those three cases would still be a ‘staggering’ £14m.
‘Even after the latest proposals, we will have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world, costing £1.5bn a year,’ said Vara, adding that the system will ‘remain loyal’ to its founding principles.
Liberal Democrat peer and barrister Lord Carlile QC challenged the minister over the fee cut for VHCC work, which he said could be as much as 40%, calling his figures ‘grossly misleading’.
He questioned the ‘ethics of government’ that could allow a ‘unilateral breach of contract’, suggesting that any predicted savings are ‘illusory’ as the cases will have to be prepared again after barristers refuse to do the work. ‘I warn you that if you go down that road, you will have chaos in the residual VHCC work because the bar will withdraw from them wholesale,’ said Carlile.
Bar chair Maura McGowan QC took issue with the claim that England and Wales has one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, saying she wanted to ‘nail the lie’.
When you measure like for like, she pointed to National Audit Office research that said the spend in England and Wales is ‘average’.
McGowan said the country continues to enjoy a justice system that is the envy of the world, but warned that in a couple of years it will be ‘no better than it is in a couple of states of America’.