Petty criminals to lose legal aid under cost-cutting plan

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The Independent Online

First-time burglars and other petty criminals will be denied representation in court under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by up to £20m a year.

First-time burglars and other petty criminals will be denied representation in court under government plans to cut the legal aid budget by up to £20m a year.

A series of cost-cutting measures announced yesterday will re-focus legal aid on the more serious offences, ending some defendants' right to be freely represented by a lawyer in the magistrates' court.

While the Government says that defendants whose liberty is at risk would not be affected by their proposals, petty or first-time offenders, along with thousands of drink-driving motorists, will be caught by the measures.

Two of the Government's key reforms announced yesterday will abolish advocacy assistance for early hearings and restrict the court duty solicitor scheme to those "in custody or to those charged with an imprisonable offence".

Announcing its response to a consultation paper on legal aid, the Government said: "This will enable help to be focused on more serious cases where representation is necessary according to the interests of justice test."

But although someone on trial in a serious case of burglary, where a custodial sentence is usual, might qualify, a first-time or petty offender, who is expecting to receive only a fine from the courts, will not.

Liberty, the civil rights group, warned yesterday: "Every time you reduce legal aid you increase the chances that there will be a miscarriage of justice."

Senior Law Society officials are concerned that such a radical reform will lead to first-time shoplifters or those accused of minor public disorder offences being unrepresented in court. Instead, they say, magistrates and their clerks will have to advise defendants on how they should plead after hearing a brief summary of the case. The Law Society's chief executive, Janet Paraskeva, said: "The decision to abolish advocacy assistance in the magistrates' court and to restrict the court duty solicitor scheme will have serious consequences for the most vulnerable defendants. It could also slow down the justice system. Large numbers of people will no longer be able to get legal advice before their court hearing. The Government has failed to recognise the importance of defendants receiving early access to good quality legal advice."

Ministers also want to end the automatic right to legal advice after a defendant has been charged and before his or her appearance in court. Another proposal will limit the provision of legal advice in the police station to telephone advice in certain cases where a solicitor cannot "advance" the client's case by attending the police station. In more serious cases, solicitors will still be able to offer advice at the police station.

Ms Paraskeva added: "Any plans to limit legal advice at police stations to telephone calls must allow flexibility so that when a case becomes more complicated or serious, a solicitor is present." Other measures designed to claw back criminal legal aid spending, which now stands at about £1.1bn, will target well-off offenders, who the Government believes should pay for their own lawyers. All Crown Court judges will now be expected to impose orders against convicted defendants who can afford to repay the cost of their defence.

Ministers predict that their proposals will save between £15m and £19m within a year.

The Legal Aid minister, David Lammy, said: "I am concerned that legal aid should continue to be available to those who need it. Our £2bn legal aid budget is the largest in the developed world and ensures that those accused of a serious offence will be able to obtain legal advice and representation. If people fall on hard times, they should be able to rely on legal aid."

He added: "My broader vision of legal aid is that it remains true to its core principles and guarantees that defendants and plaintiffs have access to justice. For that reason, I am confident that by targeting funds more efficiently we will ensure that they remain available for those who need them."