Research co-commissioned by the Law Society shows that the government could achieve two-thirds of planned criminal legal aid savings without implementing proposed fee cuts.
Falling crime rates indicate that the annual bill will fall by £84m by 2018/19, against the £120m fee saving demanded from police station attendance, magistrates’ court representation and Crown court litigation.
Spending forecasts by the Legal Aid Agency assume case volume will remain flat. But the report, by Oxford Economics, stresses that crime has been falling steadily for a decade.
The research also highlights evidence that delayed effects of past reforms are reducing case costs, indicating that the projected £84m saving could be even higher. Better case management, consolidation of the courts system and measures to reduce prosecution evidence are all having an effect, it says.
Desmond Hudson, Law Society chief executive, said: ‘This research will be presented to the Ministry of Justice as we continue to produce clear evidence against the proposed cuts. The cost of the criminal justice system to the taxpayer in England and Wales remains comparable with other countries in Europe.
‘Expenditure on criminal cases has not risen in two decades and is set to shrink further following more fee cuts. The additional cuts proposed could have a devastating impact on access to justice and many legal aid solicitors have already reached the point of despair.
‘We are proposing a better way forward, so that our members may continue to uphold the rule of law and provide access to justice.’
The report comes in the wake of unprecedented direct action led by the bar last Monday. As barristers stayed out of court, joined by some solicitors, lawyers wielding placards staged demonstrations against criminal legal aid cuts.
The Oxford Economics report was jointly commissioned by the Society, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, the Legal Aid Practitioners Group and the Big Firms Group.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, urged justice secretary Chris Grayling to ‘heed the evidence’ and reconsider the ‘savage and unnecessary’ cuts proposed.
Nicola Hill, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said: ‘What you see clearly with this independent report by reputable economists is that the government’s numbers just don’t stack up.’
However an MoJ spokesperson said: ‘This forecast is far less accurate than our own. Last year our forecast was correct to within 1%, whereas if we had used Oxford Economics analysis, we would have repeatedly overspent our legal aid litigation budget in the past few years.’