A petition to save the UK justice system has been launched after government proposes sweeping changes to the current criminal legal aid system.
In such challenging economic times, it would be hard to find anyone unaffected by the government’s latest austerity measures. Legal aid has always been a hot topic and a matter of much debate. But the latest proposals have caused deep concern among providers of publicly funded aid about the impact it could have on those who depend on this service.
The government has decided to save £220 million from the current criminal legal aid budget and proposes to do so through several measures.
First, it will limit the number of firms who can undertake criminal legal aid work. Only four contracts will be awarded in Norfolk. Second, firms will have to compete against each other for work, with lowest the bidder being allocated the work. Finally, the client will no longer be able to instruct a firm or solicitor of their choice.
The Law Society and Bar Association have heavily criticised these changes. The biggest fear is that alternative business structures, such as Tesco, will attempt to enter the market with prices traditional firms cannot match. Under the proposal, firms will have to bid for work at a rate 17.5% lower than existing average costs. This could drive down quality with the emphasis shifting from doing a good job to doing the cheapest job with client satisfaction no longer a priority. On the Law Society website, lecturers say “suppliers will have a strong financial imperative to do as little work as possible, and to persuade clients to plead guilty irrespective of the merits of their case.”
The Law Society is concerned the traditional lawyer-client relationship, which is at the “the heart of effective legal representation”, will be destroyed. “It ensures the necessary trust required for the client to make full disclosure and for the lawyer to provide appropriate advice. The current proposals abandon the professional lawyer-client relationship and treat advice as an impersonal commodity.” This could ultimately lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.
It is predicted the Independent Bar could be lost together with 75% of criminal firms currently offering legal aid. Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice, has said the long-term effects will be devastating and once the damage has been done it will be extremely hard to put right.
The petition currently has almost 50,000 signatures. If it receives 100,000 signatures, it will be referred urgently to the Houses of Parliament for debate.
Sign the petition here.