Cuts to Justice?

 

In November 2013, cuts to legal aid were planned in a way that would dramatically affect the distribution of justice. The yearly budget of £2bn – which has already been cut by £320m this parliament – is in line for a further cut of £220m. Of the remaining budget, £1bn is for criminal defence and £1bn for civil cases including mental health, asylum and family law which involved domestic violence, forced marriage or child abduction.

Despite dissent from the Treasury Counsel, the Bar Council and Law Society and a number of distinguished lawyers, the proposed cuts still loom. Three months on, on 6th January 2014, thousands of criminal case lawyers went on strike throughout England and Wales. They did not attend courts and walked out of the Old Bailey in protest.

The popular view of lawyers being ‘fat cats’ might make these protests seem absurd, but in fact they are crucial in keeping the system of justice which exists in Britain today. A spokeswoman from The Ministry of Justice said that the £350m cuts ‘will create a sustainable legal aid system that will still be one of the most generous in the world’. The MoJ also released figures showing that the median income of a criminal barrister is £56,000 and also said that they do not think their proposed rates for more routine work to be unjust as the minimum a QC would be paid for such a case in £306 each day. However, the median income figure does not factor in travel, VAT deductions and chamber costs nor does it reflect the income of young barristers who may initially learn as little as £10,000 per year. Criminal law would become an unsustainable profession and thus a vast number of people would rely on the pro-bono work of lawyers for their justice. Recently tightened restrictions on legal aid have already led to an increase in people being forced to represent themselves in court with little legal knowledge and thus an unfair disadvantage.

The fear is that cuts to criminal defence which would lead to greater miscarriages of justice. Talented lawyers would be less inclined towards criminal law due to the proposed rates being so low. Lawyers would refuse to work at hourly rates lower than the national minimum wage and thus little attention would be paid to legal aid cases. They would pay less attention than is needed to each individual as they would have such a vast number of cases to get through. The reforms would also make barristers less likely to take on cases like burglaries, thefts and minor assault offences because they would not be able to cover their costs.

This would have drastic consequences for vulnerable members of society who rely on the country’s dedication to justice. A lack of quantity and quality of lawyers in the criminal field would mean that those with the greatest need would suffer the most. Surely cases can’t be won by only those who can afford it?

The cuts are also unlikely to result in savings but instead will see a huge number of ‘exceptional funding applications’ (the measure put in place to make funding available to the most needy). Furthermore, people representing themselves with no legal background would be an expensive waste of court time. The proposals are technically flawed, and combined with the impact on the distribution of justice, the impact does not look worth the £220m the government would save.

 

Honor Fitzgerald

 

Photo Credit: DanMcCurry

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