Criminal defence practitioners have criticised the timing of the government’s latest bid to slash fees for Crown court work, branding the proposals a ‘short-term sticking plaster’.
Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association chair Zoe Gascoyne and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association president Greg Powell announced that they will ‘vociferously oppose’ the Ministry of Justice’s plans to reform the litigators’ graduated fee scheme and the need for a cut ‘in any guise’.
In a consultation paper published on Friday, justice minister Sir Oliver Heald said the lord chancellor was willing to drop a second proposed cut in fees for litigators defending clients in the Crown court. However, Heald said the ministry would seek to confirm this once the government has considered the responses to this consultation.
The ministry proposed to reduce the threshold for pages of prosecution evidence (PPE) from the current cap of 10,000 pages to 6,000 pages.
An accompanying impact assessment document states that legal aid providers conducting cases with at least 6,000 pages of prosecution evidence would receive around £26m to £36m less for LGFS payments.
The ministry also wants to cap court appointees’ costs at legal aid rates.
The Law Society has already branded the proposed cuts as ‘unnecessary and ill-timed’.
In a statement, the CLSA and LCCSA pointed out that the reforms amounted to ‘huge cuts’ seven weeks before solicitors are expected to sign new government contracts to provide criminal legal aid services.
Gascoyne and Powell said: ‘The MoJ promised a review of the LGFS looking at the inequalities within the system. Instead they have presented an ill-conceived short-term sticking plaster to deal with the recent judgments that have reflected the work that solicitors have to undertake on larger cases.
‘The notion that section 38 cases can be done at legal aid rates is fanciful given the hourly rates available and the intense nature of many of the clients who have not secured representation. Few solicitors will accept such cases in the era of fixed fees and court closures.’
In his weekly update, Criminal Bar Association chair Francis FitzGibbon QC said it was not for the association to offer ‘unsolicited advice’ about the LGFS scheme.
But he said it was a shame that the consultation ‘does not take a more strategic view and does not apply the [advocates’ graduated fee scheme] principle of rewarding work that is done to LGFS – it would surely serve the public interest better to redistribute the money so that solicitors have improved rates of pay for attending police stations and magistrates’ courts, not least to enhance the “early engagement” that is the order of the day.
‘The lottery of PPE payments is unsatisfactory, and draws money away from where it is more urgently needed in the system.’