Legal Aid Consultation – the case for reform?

This is an extract from our response to the Legal Aid Consultation and deals with the alleged Case for Reform

It is true that the criminal justice system in England and Wales enjoys an excellent world-wide reputation. What is also true is that the defence of individuals prosecuted by the State and who cannot afford to defend themselves is delivered currently at a high standard and with enormous efficiency of cost. If proof of this statement were needed, we have to look no further than the Public Defender Service. The Government wishes to maintain this institution and yet it costs more than three times as much as private practice to deliver criminal defence services to the public.

It is disappointing yet again to see the tired line of “we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world” trotted out not only in this consultation document but in virtually every public declaration by Government when the cuts to legal aid are reported.

The Government know that this type of statement will play well with certain individuals and certain members of the public. The Government also knows that our system is different to many others: the system that they proudly state to be the envy of the rest of the world.

It is dishonest to compare only the cost of legal aid. This does not show the whole picture and does not take into account the differences in global criminal justice systems. The National Audit Office undertook a study in 2012 comparing the costs of the various criminal justice systems around the world. England and Wales was average in the cost to the country at 0.33%. In a proper comparison our system of justice including legal aid for defendants is average, it is not the most expensive or even one of the most expensive. It is about time the Government stopped trying to justify their butchery of legal aid by this misleading comment. If these cuts happen, our system will collapse and this Lord Chancellor will have presided over the destruction of a once proud national institution, one of the few things about which other countries around the world look to our country with respect.

As stated above, the legal aid system has not been “immune” from reductions in spending. It has suffered a disproportionate level of spending cuts in the last 15 years. It is a falling spend for Government and has been for a decade. It remains, however, a relatively easy target, or so the politicians seem to think.

The comments at paragraph 1.5 are simply nonsense. The system does command the confidence of the public as the ComRes poll proved. There is no actual proof to the contrary and the concept that public confidence in legal aid has to be restored is based on nothing at all. It is simply and baldly a lie. What will destroy the confidence of the public in legal aid is if solicitors are expected to represent people in police stations for £160 regardless of offence which could mean they are being paid at less than the minimum wage and if the public knew that solicitors are to be financially encouraged to advise their clients to plead guilty against their own professional rules of conduct and regardless of the evidence in the case. If you pay them little enough and financially incentivise the guilty plea as an outcome, is it possible that cracks will appear in the relationship and trust between solicitor and client? This will undermine public confidence as will the fact that qualified solicitors will be replaced at legal aid firms but non or very much less qualified paralegals. These will be the results of the proposed changes for any firm able to survive financially if these rates are all that is to be paid.

The consultation process

The section in the consultation about the consultation process and the outcome is difficult to read without laughing out loud. In a nutshell it says:

• We are really listening to the people who respond to the consultation
• We had 16000 responses (it is doubtful that many if any were positive to the Government plans)
• We have read them all very carefully in three months and still had time to produce another massive consultation document
• We have given up on restricting client choice because we realise that was a real public relations disaster.
• So we are just going to carry on with pretty much everything else because we think we are right and everyone else is wrong.

It is obvious that this whole process is a complete sham. The Ministry is not listening to anyone. It will not listen to the responses to this consultation because it thinks it knows best.

At paragraph 1.21 the document says, “… our analysis of responses to the consultation has convinced us that we should press ahead with out original proposals subject to no or only limited modification.” This comment is so arrogant and misguided that any hope that consideration will be given to the responses this time round completely evaporates.

Sixteen thousand individual responses told you this was a bad idea. Having analysed them, you are going to do it any way!

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