Legal aid cuts 'crude and brutal'

Proposed cuts to the legal aid budget will cost more than they save and could leave more than half a million people "silenced in court", legal experts have warned.

The Bar Council and the Law Society, representing barristers and solicitors in England and Wales, said the cuts "could end up costing rather than saving taxpayers' money, with a devastating effect on access to justice", leaving hundreds of thousands of people unrepresented.

The warning comes as veteran campaigner Joanna Lumley backed the Sound Off For Justice campaign against Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke's plans to axe civil legal aid for a wide range of disputes, including those over relationship break-ups, school admissions and expulsions, as well as clinical negligence.

The proposals would help save £350 million over the next four years, Mr Clarke said when he launched the Ministry of Justice's Green Paper last November.

But actress and Gurkha campaigner Ms Lumley said that without legal aid, cases like the Gurkha Justice Campaign "could never have been fought, let alone won".

"Everyone has a right to be heard," she said.

"I believe justice is only just if it is available to everyone."

Stephen Cobb QC, chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, said the proposals would trigger "a surge in DIY litigants which risks gridlock in the courts, as they struggle to get justice".

"The threats posed by the Government's proposals are real and potentially brutal," he said.

"In family cases, men or women suffering from serious psychological abuse may go unrepresented in private law proceedings.

"Parents, without representation, could face the removal of their children into care if the court finds reasonable grounds for believing that the children are suffering significant harm.

"Consumers suffering at the hands of negligent corporate entities may have to fund their own claims.

"The list is extensive."

He went on: "More people will face courtroom ordeals, without the benefit of experienced lawyers to advise them as to their rights and guide them through court procedures.

"Instead, where would-be litigants may be advised not to bring a claim, or to settle, they will turn to the courts alone.

"The impact on the court system will be longer trials, more appeals, more costs and the risk of miscarriages of justice.

"Worse still, without the help and support of a proper system of legal aid, vulnerable people whose rights have been infringed may not be in a position to pursue those rights at all. This is not the type of justice that a civilised society should expect."

Mr Cobb added: "We fear these attempted cuts, being so crude and brutal, will cost more than they save.

"In the absence of proper or reliable evidence on which the proposals are based, and our identification of clear unintended consequences, the Government cannot say with any confidence that the proposed cuts will not end up costing as much as it is trying to save.

"Put simply, the proposals don't add up."

The impact on the administration of justice, the running of the courts, and the burden on other departments such as the Department of Health, could all cost the Government the money it is trying to save, he said.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, also criticised the proposals, saying they would mean more than half a million people each year "find themselves unrepresented and ultimately 'silenced in court"'.

Linda Lee, the society's president, said: "We recognise that in this tough economic climate tough decisions need to be made, but these must not risk doing lasting damage to access to justice.

"We believe what is currently on the table is just another example of panic-stricken cuts.

"We believe these cuts are ill conceived and unfair and that the Government risks doing long-lasting damage to justice in this country. Sound Off For Justice aims to give the public the voice to say no."

Justice Minister Jonathan Djanogly said: "At more than £2 billion a year, we pay far more per head than most other countries for legal aid.

"The current system encourages lengthy, acrimonious and sometimes unnecessary court proceedings, at taxpayers' expense, which do not always ensure the best result for those involved."

"We need to make clear choices to ensure that legal aid will continue to be available in those cases that really require it, the protection of the most vulnerable in society, and the efficient performance of the justice system.

"Our proposals aim to radically reform the system and encourage people to take advantage of the most appropriate sources of help, advice or routes to resolution - which will not always involve the expense of lawyers or courts.

"We will now give careful consideration to all consultation responses."