The current problems with legal aid for criminal cases

This firm is committed to providing its clients with a top quality service whether they are privately instructing us or we are acting under the legal aid scheme. Access to proper legal advice and representation, access to justice should not depend on your income. It has long been recognised as a basic human right and necessary for a fair trial.

This Government is aware that continued cuts to legal aid have led to a system where your chance of justice is dictated by the size of your bank balance. Mr Gove (the new Lord Chancellor) said exactly that in a speech in June 2015. So what is he going to do about it? He is going to cut the legal aid rates again.

Like the NHS and education, legal aid has to be properly funded to be effective. In order for us to provide a service of sufficient quality under legal aid, we have to be paid an adequate amount for the case. We are committed to providing a service to those members of society who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer themselves but only in so far as the level of service we can provide is of sufficient standard to allow us to fulfil our professional obligations to our clients.

The underlying rate of pay for criminal legal aid has not increased since at least 1996, nearly 20 years. There have been no inflationary increases in that time. In March 2014 the rate was reduced by 8.75% and from 1st July 2015 it is to be reduced by the same amount again. This is a cut of 17.5% in the last 15 months. These cuts mean that the underlying rate has in effect been halved in the last 20 years. Can you think of anything else where the cost is half of what it was 20 years ago?

The most recent cut is to come into effect on 1st July 2015. It is a cut too far. It is time for lawyers to make a stand in order to prevent proper access to justice disappearing altogether for the vast majority of people in the UK. These cuts will mean legal aid firms cannot survive. They will close or stop undertaking legal aid work. It will be harder to find a quality legal aid lawyer and soon it may be impossible. Without proper representation, a fair trial will be impossible.

We need the Government to understand that what they are doing is unnecessary and dangerous. Unnecessary in financial terms as the legal aid budget has been falling each year in any event and will continue to fall for reasons unrelated to rates of pay. Dangerous because it will lead to immense problems within the criminal justice system, more wrongful convictions and will have devastating long term effects on the quality of criminal justice in the UK.

Action from 1st July 2015

With the greatest of regret this firm will not be taking on any new legal aid cases from 1st July 2015. We will continue to provide the emergency cover required under our contract with the Legal Aid Agency by providing duty solicitor services in the police station and court.

We will not be representing clients (other than duty clients) at the police station and will take on no new legal aid cases at the magistrates’ or the Crown Court until the Government withdraws the recent cut and starts talking to the profession about future changes to legal aid in a constructive manner. This is a decision that we have reached on consideration of our professional obligations to our clients and the lack of economic viability in the new fees. We understand that hundreds of other firms around the country will be doing the same thing.

We hope that this will not be a long term situation and it will not be easy for us or our clients. We would ask our clients to consider the longer term effect and to try to understand why we have been forced into this position following years of cuts and underfunding in legal aid. Lawyers are not radical by nature and it is a measure of the magnitude of the problem that we are compelled to take action of this nature. We hope that this action will preserve legal aid for the longer term.

What do you do if you are arrested or in court

If you are arrested and require advice at the police station, you should make it known that you want this firm to act for you. However, you are unlikely to be able to speak to us as the police have to call a third party (the Defence Solicitor Call Centre) who may not give us details of your case if we are not accepting the case. You should ask for advice from the duty solicitor and tell the duty solicitor that originally you wanted this firm to represent you. Ask them to contact us after the police station attendance. You should remain in contact with us if you are bailed to return or charged.

This action may mean that the duty solicitor is very busy and interviews may be delayed as a result. The police may ask you to agree to an interview without a solicitor if it is taking a long time. Do not agree to this. If you ask for a solicitor and one cannot be found the police will either have to release you on bail or interview you without a solicitor. If they do interview you and as long as you do not agree to be interviewed without a solicitor they cannot hold anything against you if you make no comment.

This is very important:

> Ask for advice from the duty solicitor;

> Do not agree to be interviewed without a solicitor however long it takes;

> If you are interviewed without a solicitor and still say you want one present, you should consider making no comment as it cannot be held against you;

> if you agree to be interviewed without a solicitor or refuse the duty solicitor when offered, you can be interviewed and evidence of a no comment can be used against you (although it may well still be the best course of action).

If you are charged and taken to court, you should make it clear to the court that you want this firm to act and you may be able to get advice from the duty solicitor at the first appearance. After that you will either have to represent yourself or choose to be represented by a firm that is not taking this action.

There will be firms who are continuing to work under the new rates. It is a matter for you if you would wish to be represented by one of them given that they must have made a commercial decision that they can operate on the vastly reduced rates. You may want to consider what level of service they may be able to provide for those rates.

We hope that this action will not last too long and you should use the duty solicitor where available in the meantime. Please keep in contact with us and we hope you understand the reasons why we have been forced into this invidious position: if we do not make a stand, access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay for a lawyer will disappear.

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