Please respond to the Ministry of Justice's consultation, opposing these further cuts to the legal aid.
The Ministry of Justice is consulting on proposals to cut a further £220 - £300 million from the legal aid budget. The consultation “Transforming legal aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system” is open until 4 June 2013. If the proposals in the consultation go through, there will be no longer be any specialist, expert legal advice and representation available on legal aid. There are two key areas of cuts.
Criminal defence lawyers face a complex process of competitive tendering leading to a race to the bottom. Bids will be invited below a fixed ceiling for batches of work around the country. It is a system in which only warehouse law firms will exist and high street firms will either die or be absorbed by large corporations, intent on delivering legal services cheaply for maximum profit. The future will be one in which suspects are apprehended by G4S investigators, transported by G4S security, detained by G4S officers and imprisoned in G4S jails – at each stage represented by G4S lawyers.
With price competition will come the removal of the right to the solicitor of your choice. Representation will be allocated by rota and it will be made difficult to change solicitor should you wish to for any reason. The idea that quality can survive the casual vandalism of these proposals is absurd. The model of turbo price competition used in some US states tells us that.
Fees in criminal legal aid is a favourite target of Justice Secretaries and Grayling is no exception. While a handful of criminal QCs do earn significant sums the rest do not. It may be that such fees should be discussed but not in a bid to undermine the entire system.
On the civil side the planned fee reductions mean many lawyers’ practices will simply no longer be viable. So those who specialise in housing, homelessness, actions against the police and judicial review – all crucial mechanisms for ensuring state accountability – will disappear. Their successors will be the warehouse G4S model or non-specialist charitable organisations staffed by well-intentioned but resource-poor lawyers. There will be no equality of arms in the courtroom.
As a result of previous reforms, from 1 April this year a raft of areas no longer attract free legal advice. Employment cases, non-asylum immigration cases, consumer rights and welfare benefits were all removed from scope: the “LASPO cuts”. In the case of the latter it is estimated that 40% of challenges before the benefits tribunal succeed. Money would be saved by the Department of Work and Pensions making the correct decisions in the first place. There has been no opportunity to yet assess the impact of these changes but that has not deterred Grayling from unleashing a new round of cuts.
This is not special pleading for lawyers (declaration: I've spent 25 years working in legal aid). The reality is that these cuts to legal aid rates mean the end to a legal aid service.
Unite the Union is part of ‘Justice for All’, a coalition set up to campaign against cuts in legal aid. We appreciate the solidarity shown by Unite members in defence of legal aid, the fourth pillar of the welfare state. We know that the solidarity is expressed not for lawyers, although most lawyers working in legal aid are not particularly well paid – the Guardian found in 2009 that the average salary for a legal aid lawyer was £25,000. The solidarity is on behalf of all those who cannot afford legal representation and yet find themselves facing criminal charges, the loss of their home or need advice on consumer rights or welfare benefits.
We urge Unite branches to respond to the Ministry of Justice's consultation, opposing these further cuts to the legal aid branches. Click here for a template response to this consultation and responses should then be sent to email@example.com.
Liz Davies, Chair of the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers and housing rights barrister specialising in tenants' rights and homelessness law.
[This article first appeared on the Unite the Union website.]