The poorest and most vulnerable people in society are being hit by cuts to the legal system while the government bankrolls the wealthiest, a senior QC said today.
The taxpayer is forced to foot a bill mounting up to hundreds of millions to deal with bank fraud cases each year while the Ministry of Justice is pushing through a £220 million annual cut to the criminal legal aid bill, said Michael Turner QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association.
Barristers and solicitors have joined forces in recent months to protest vehemently against the proposed cuts, which they describe as a "devastating" attack on the justice system.
The Ministry of Justice recently closed its consultation period on proposals that will see defendants deprived of the right to choose their lawyer, criminal legal aid contracts awarded through price competitive tendering and the number of firms reduced from 1,400 to 400. The reforms, the legal profession has said, will hit society's most vulnerable, deprived and socially excluded, creating a system more focused on profit than quality.
Speaking before MPs on the justice select committee today, Mr Turner said there were better ways of making savings to the legal budget, one of them being to ensure that banks were obliged to insure themselves against fraud and the cost of prosecutions.
Speaking to The Independent, he said: "About 45 per cent of the criminal legal aid budget of £1.1 billion is spent on these fraud cases."
"The state pays for the investigation by the police and the state prosecutes at the expense of the tax payer," said Mr Turner, pointing out that the higher burden of proof required in a criminal court then made it simpler for a bank to prove a civil case.
"If they never recover that money, the banks are entitled to write off the fraud loss against tax.
"That is why banks have absolutely no interest in putting in systems which prevent fraud taking place. They should have to carry insurance to protect the public from paying out if they get defrauded," he added.
MoJ figures acknowledged that 90 per cent of the criminal legal aid spend goes on one per cent of "high value" cases, Mr Turner said. These include terrorist, money laundering and fraud trials, including those affecting banks.
The legal aid budget not only covers the prosecution but also the defence in cases where the defendant's assets are frozen. Breaking down the figures, he estimated that just under half of the criminal legal aid bill went on banking fraud. This did not include, he added, tax payers' money spent on the investigation or writing off the loss against tax.
"The poorest in society cannot afford half a million for lobby groups which can grease the palms of those in power but of course the banking industry can. That is a scandal.
"The private sector is creaming off public funds that should be there for the benefit of the citizen, for the most vulnerable," he said.
Last night banking sector sources said the industry already provided for dedicated police counter fraud units and worked closely with government on dealing with the issue.
One insider added: "Not all fraud is banking fraud. You would have to have compulsory insurance schemes for other sectors of industry. Are you going to privatise prosecutions for industry by setting up a compulsory insurance scheme?"
The MoJ denied that bank fraud cases ate up almost half the budget, insisting that the cost to the criminal legal aid bill was "considerably less".
A spokesman added: "At £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and must ensure we get bet value for every penny of taxpayers' money spent. We have just finished consulting on a number of proposals to reform legal aid and are now carefully examining all the responses, including alternative proposals for making savings.
"Quality, professional lawyers would still be available to anyone needing advice or charged with a crime just as they are now."
Mr Turner told the justice committee yesterday that great savings could also be made by improving a legal system that often sees court cases postponed due to inefficiencies such as prisoners not being delivered or interpreters not arriving.
He continued: "The real sadness for us all is that we are not being listened to. There are huge savings that could be made but (Justice secretary Chris) Mr Grayling won't even see me."