New legal aid reforms end 'justice for all', lawyers warn

Under plans to save £200m solicitors will be paid fixed fees, with contracts going to firms like G4S

England’s 800-year-old tradition of fair and open access to justice for all will be destroyed by sweeping Government plans to reform criminal legal aid, senior judges and magistrates warn today.

In an attempt to save £200 million by 2018, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling plans to stop paying solicitors for the work they do – and instead give them a fixed fee for each case they represent.

Lawyers will be incentivised to recommend guilty pleas to their clients, a coalition of judges, magistrates and civil liberties groups warns. Their fears are backed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates miscarriages of justice on behalf of the Government.

Criminal suspects will lose their rights to choose or dismiss a solicitor, and the number of accredited legal aid firms will drop from 1,600 to less than 400 – raising the possibility that hundreds of small high street firms could be replaced by huge contractors like G4S.

“The Government is creating a system where potentially the same company could defend you, lock you up in prison and then rehabilitate you when you come out,” said one judicial source.

“It is the complete privatisation of justice.”

The current President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, is understood to have deep reservations about Mr Grayling’s plan. Sources suggest that he believes it undermines the right – first enshrined in the Magna Carta – that “to no man shall we deny justice”.

The former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf told The Independent on Sunday that the proposals would lead to a “factory of mass-produced justice” and miscarriages of justice.

“There have never been votes in crusading on behalf of people who are maybe guilty,” he said.

“But the principle of fair justice must be important to us as a society. The rule of law and our system of justice is one of the areas where up until now we have still been able to look with pride.

“The long-term effects of this will be very serious and once the damage is done it will be very, very hard to put right.”

The plans would eradicate small firms of lawyers who understood the needs and problems of their clients, warned John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates Association, which represents 28,000 voluntary justices who see the bulk of criminal cases before the courts.

“These changes will mean we will see larger firms like G4S come in and gobble up the smaller firms,” he said. “That will not be good for community justice.

“Often legal aid is looked at in the context of big serious cases at the Crown Court and not looked at the 95 per cent of the cases which come before us.

“But we see cases of solicitors representing individuals time and time again and who know about their individual problems and circumstances. That will fade away and I don’t think defendants will get the representation they deserve.”

Mr Grayling’s controversial measures are contained in a document quietly released on the day of Baroness Thatcher’s death and do not require a vote in Parliament.

Under the plans which are due to come into effect next year:

* Criminal legal fees will be cut across the board by nearly 20 per cent.

* Fixed fees for handling cases will replace graduated fees that depend on how far the case progresses.

* Companies will be invited to bid for around 400 legal aid contracts split up around the country – replacing the 1,600 firms accredited at present. Big firms will be able to bid for multiple contacts, making money through economies of scale.

* Clients will no longer be able to choose who represents them – instead being allocated a firm from those accredited. They will only be able to request another solicitor in “exceptional circumstances” and will not be entitled to have the same representation that they may have done in the past.

* Barristers will be paid the same Crown Court rates irrespective of whether there is an early or a late guilty plea or a short trial.

The Ministry of Justice admits in its own small print that the Grayling plans will lead to less effective representation.

“We anticipate the proposed competition model may have an adverse impact on clients,” the MoJ consultation states, “because they would no longer have the choice of selecting any provider to deliver criminal legal aid services.”

The MoJ adds: “Fee schemes that are largely based on fixed fees mean that providers might make a profit on the fixed fee because relatively little work was required on the case. However, in other cases which required more work, they could make a loss.”

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President of the Law Society, warned that the Government’s “destructive” plan would create a rift between clients and lawyers. “The idea that you’ll get the paid the same fee for a guilty plea as you will for a two-day hearing puts the interest of the defendant and the lawyer in conflict with each other, which hardly seems healthy,” she said.

“We are willing to work with the Ministry of Justice to get costs down but what is being proposed here could lead to collapse of justice.”

Others plan to object. The Criminal Cases Review Commission, a public body set up by the Government to investigate possible miscarriages of justice, is drawing up its response.

“It stands to reason that if you deplete the availability of good advice at important stages in a prosecution you increase the risk that something will go wrong,” said one source.

“There are already incentives within the criminal justice system for people to plead guilty – without making it in the financial interests of a defendant’s lawyers to encourage them not to defend themselves.”

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “We cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is still costing too much. It is not free money… we must ensure we get the very best value for every penny spent.”

An MoJ spokesman added: “Decisions on the question of plea are ultimately for the individual defendant. We do not believe that lawyers will abandon their professional obligations to clients.”

Suggested Topics
Voices
voices
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
newsHad asteroid hit earlier or later in history, the creatures might have survived, say scientists
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
arts + ents
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Sport
Laura Trott with her gold
Commonwealth GamesJust 48 hours earlier cyclist was under the care of a doctor
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman
arts + entsFilmmaker posted a picture of Israeli actress Gal Gadot on Twitter
News
Bryan had a bracelet given to him by his late father stolen during the raid
people
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel
arts + entsPrince Oberyn nearly sets himself on fire with a flaming torch
News
Danny Nickerson, 6, has received 15,000 cards and presents from well-wishers around the world
newsDanny loves to see his name on paper, so his mother put out a request for cards - it went viral
Sport
France striker Loic Remy
sportThe QPR striker flew to Boston earlier in the week to complete deal
News
Orville and Keith Harris. He covered up his condition by getting people to read out scripts to him
People
Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana stars in this summer's big hope Guardians of the Galaxy
filmHollywood's summer blockbusters are no longer money-spinners
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Life and Style
Workers in Seattle are paid 100 times as much as workers in Bangladesh
fashionSeattle company lets customers create their own clothes, then click 'buy' and wait for delivery
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Training/Learning and Development Coordinator -London

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Training/Learning and Development Co...

Training Programme Manager (Learning and Development)-London

£28000 - £32000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Training Programme Manage...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Urgently looking for Qualified Teachers and NQT's

£110 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Urgently looking for Quali...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried