Barristers and solicitors staged a second walkout yesterday over proposed cuts to the legal aid system by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
The government plans to make cuts of £220m to the legal aid bill per year until 2018 across both civil and criminal cases (you can see an outline of the proposed changes here) but those in the legal profession say it will hit the poor hardest of all.
Some of the proposals are pretty worrying, such as removing a defendant's right to choose their own legal representation and instead allowing firms to effectively compete, combined with a price cap of 17.5% lower than the current rate. So if you're accused of a crime requiring a complex or specialised defence and you can't afford to pay for it privately, you could find yourself with inadequate representation or no representation at all. Eight defendants in a fraud case have been unable to find barristers to represent them in court following cuts to fees. The middle classes could also find themselves on the wrong end of a large bill — another of the MoJ's proposals is a cutoff at a disposable household income of £37,500.
Taking a look at some of the proposed cuts to civil cases doesn't fill us with confidence either. Debt, housing and benefit issues are on the list, as are some immigration and clinical negligence cases. Oh, and if you've been mistreated while being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure, you won't get legal aid at all. Family law is the area hardest hit, with divorce and child contact cases being ineligible unless there is proof of domestic violence. This article in the New Statesman earlier this year demonstrated just how the most poor and vulnerable people in society are being let down as a result of legal aid cuts.
In common with other cuts campaigns, such as the one which branded welfare claimants 'scroungers', the government have sought to justify cuts by painting legal aid solicitors and barristers as 'fat cats' making millions at the taxpayer's expense. This blog from an anonymous Lincoln's Inn barrister sets out some of the eye-watering costs involved in being in practice, while C4's Factcheck concluded that the average wage was around £56,000. The Criminal Bar Association (CBA) say this figure is exclusive of VAT, costs of chambers and sick pay amongst other things.
Like with benefit claimants, it's tempting to think of people accused of crime as less deserving of financial assistance from the government. Despite trust in the police being at an all time low, a belief that 'accused', 'arrested' and 'charged' are synonymous with 'convicted' and 'guilty' seems to persist. The MoJ's response to the walkouts that 'legal aid is a vital part of our justice system – that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer' appears to see the people most in need of justice and least able to afford it as part of its efficiencies. Nigel Lithman QC, chairman of the CBA said:
"If these cuts are not addressed then the British justice system, which is held in such high esteem around the world, will cease to exist as we know it and the British public can no longer expect true justice to be delivered."
The first walkout on 6 January this year saw several hundred barristers and solicitors gather outside the Old Bailey, Southwark Crown Court and Westminster Magistrates' Court.