Thursday, 20 August 2009

Criminal legal aid to be slashed

LAG has been aware for some time that a crisis is looming next year with the legal aid budget. While off the record officials were telling us that the budget was looking distinctly dodgy, they were being tight-lipped about the possible options for cuts. One thing was clear though, some had been too optimistic about the savings they could make from putting police station work out to tender. When it became clear that savings from best value tendering (BVT) would be negligible, especially in the first year, a plan 'B' was needed. The consultation paper published today (Legal aid: funding reforms, 20 August 2009) is it. What the Ministry of Justice is proposing is:

- an up to 23 per cent cut in advocacy fees in the Crown Court;
- a flat fee for all police station work ending the different fee structure in different areas;
- an end to the duplication of fees for committals before trial; and
- a cut in the costs of expert reports.

In a significant move the government has recognised the importance of maintaining the social welfare law budget. As we all know in these hard economic times many people are facing problems with housing, debt, employment and benefits. Timely advice can make a big difference to their lives and it is commendable that the government has recognised this.

LAG believes that some savings can be made in Crown Court fees. An elite group of barristers earn enormous sums from legal aid. A balance has to be struck, though, between reducing costs and retaining good quality advocates in the system as equality before the law comes at a price.

Expert fees have been scandalously high in some instances. The move to set rates is well overdue, but will again have to be managed carefully because of the risk of losing quality from the system.

As regards police station work instead of relying on competition the government has now gone back to controlling costs by fixing the price for such work. Solicitors in London could be especially hard hit. Our concern is that gaps in cover could emerge if the price set is not sustainable. It is an open secret that many firms stay in police station work because they want to pick up the well paid Crown and higher court work. Cutting the pay for such work could lead to many deciding to abandon criminal work altogether.