The Ministry of Justice has launched a consultation which aims to slash the £1.7bn legal aid budget by £300m. The proposed changes will affect defendants with an annual income in excess of £37.5k, new migrants and offenders serving time in prisons. The consultation is part of the legal aid reform and follows on from drastic changes in the civil law sector, which affects family law in particular.
The Proposed Changes to Legal Aid
The latest proposed cuts to legal aid have caused concerns with the Law Society, who are worried that the cuts may increase miscarriages of justice. As part of the consultation, defendants with a disposable income of over £37,500 a year will no longer automatically qualify for legal aid and prisoners will not be able to make legal aid claims unless it relates to the length of their sentence.
The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, also wants to deny the right to legal aid in civil cases for immigrants or people in Britain on student/tourist visas unless they have lived in the country for at least a year. He aims to prevent access to the British legal system to foreign nationals who enter the country illegally/for a short amount of time and use legal aid to fund their civil cases.
The Ministry of Justice has also revealed its plans to charge criminals for the costs of the court process, suggesting that a convicted offender would have the costs deducted off their future earnings. Chris Grayling said that “Those who live outside the law should pay the consequences both through being punished and bearing more of the costs they impose on society.”
Criminal Legal Aid Cuts Spell Bad News for Small Law Firms
Another aspect of the consultation which has caused uproar is the idea that solicitor firms may have to start effectively ‘bidding’ for legal aid cases. The government want to introduce a price competition which would jeopardise smaller law firm’s chances of representing publicly funded cases. The government’s aim is to get a higher number of contracts with bigger law firms who can offer the government a better deal on a higher scale of legal aid cases.
Michael Gray, Partner of Gray and Co Solicitors voiced his concerns to the Chancellor himself in a letter stating the following: “I fail to see how competitive tendering provides an answer. This is not a business where profit is all. The work and expertise required is not to be underestimated. It seems to me that politicians and civil servants are out of touch with what is happening in reality in the precincts of court buildings and police stations throughout the country”.
The issues lie with the fact that introducing price competition between legal firms is a huge risk to the judicial system and that the government will be encouraging quantity over quality when it comes to defending some of society’s most vulnerable people. The legal industry has been hit hard by the legal aid reform but is integral to ensure safety and justice in Britain.
Mr. Gray expressed his worries about the future of the justice system by saying “Cases are poorly prepared now due to lack of resources – there has never been a greater need to have an effective defence as a safeguard to prevent miscarriages of justice. Parrallels can be made with the NHS where unchecked pressure on resources has led to systemic failure”.
Despite the objections, ministers have defended their decision to make cuts to legal aid and ensure legal aid will still be provided for the people who need it most.