Justice could be under “grave threat” from proposed legal aid cuts, according to barristers who will today hold a national protest in London.
Hundreds of barristers, solicitors and law students are set to come together at the event – titled One Bar: one voice – United for Justice – at Lincoln’s Inn.
The demonstration has been organised by the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales who fear the cuts would endanger vulnerable people in need of high quality legal representation.
Nicholas Lavender QC, chairman of the Bar who is among the event speakers, said: “This is a vital opportunity to demonstrate that the whole profession stands together in support of the Rule of Law and access to justice, which are under grave threat from the Government’s proposed cuts.”
The Ministry of Justice has said it is vital to scale back the most expensive legal aid scheme in the world and insisted it will remain “very generous” after the changes.
Proposed reforms would see prisoners’ access to legal aid limited, a household disposable income threshold for criminal legal aid introduced at £37,500, and a reduction in the cost of fees for representation.
But they have led to warnings many legal firms would close, jeopardising access to legal advice and the quality of criminal defence.
It has also been suggested that flat fees could provide a “cynical perverse incentive” for laywers to opt for the easier option in advising clients to plead guilty rather than not guilty which would involve far more work for no more money.
Protests last month saw the closure of courts around the country, including Leeds, Hull, Sheffield and Bradford.
The Bar Council sees today’s meeting as the profession’s last chance to talk through its concerns on a big scale before the Ministry of Justice announces the outcome.
Speakers also include Nigel Lithman QC chair of the Criminal Bar Association, former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association Paul Harris and Timothy Fancourt QC chair of the Chancery Bar Association and Susan Jacklin QC chair of the Family Law Bar Association.
Mr Lavender said: “The Government says that it needs to make savings, but the proposed cuts to the fees paid for advocates in the Crown Court are both unnecessary, because legal aid costs are falling anyway, and a false economy, because they will end up generating more costs than they save.
“Under the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) plans, these cases would no longer be conducted by the skilled and experienced advocates on whom our criminal justice system depends, and the publicly-funded Bar of the future would be significantly less diverse, resulting in less diversity in the judiciary in years to come. The greatest victims would be the public interest and the society which we seek to serve.
“It is not too late for the MoJ to reflect on the damage which its cuts will cause and to review the justice system sensibly and properly with the profession, so that we can achieve savings whilst maintaining access to justice.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and it would remain very generous even after reform. We agree lawyers should be paid adequately for their work and believe our proposals do just that. We also agree 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.
“We do not underestimate the challenge reform presents for lawyers but there is severe financial pressure that makes it necessary. We are examining every area of the department’s work to find savings – legal aid has not been singled out.”