Bar angry at proposed cuts to legal aid fees

21 AUG 2009

The Bar Council has reacted angrily to the latest Ministry of Justice's proposals to reform the legal aid budget.

In it's consultation, Legal aid: funding reforms, the MoJ proposes to make a range of fee cuts for criminal work, including a possible 23% fee reduction for and defence barristers.

In addition, the MoJ will ask the Legal Services Commission to consider changes to payments made to experts in both criminal and civil cases. Currently, the legal aid budget pays different amounts for the same work by different experts and across categories of law. The change would see payments standardised to ensure better value for money.

'In order to protect access to civil legal aid', the Legal Services Commission will also be asked to find an additional 5% saving from its administrative budget this year and 10% next year, saving approximately £6m and £11m in the respective years.

Legal Aid Minister, Lord Bach said: "The UK has one of the best funded legal aid systems in the world and it is a vital service for many people, particularly during the current economic downturn. More and more homeowners, employees and those facing financial hardship are vulnerable to civil law problems at this time. We need to do all we can to ensure that legal aid is prioritised effectively so that more people are able to access it to resolve their legal problems.

"Legal aid practitioners provide a fantastic service and should be paid accordingly; and that means rebalancing some fee structures so that there is greater fairness across the board. Today's consultation paper sets out proposals to make better use of the legal aid budget and ensure access for as many people as possible."

Desmond Browne QC, Chairman of the Bar Council, commented: "It is a total misuse of language for Lord Bach to talk about 'efficiency savings'. These are cuts in spending, pure and simple, to what is an integral part of the welfare state. It is horrifying that the Ministry can even contemplate such measures during the 60th anniversary of the Legal Aid Act. Cuts on this scale will not merely drive down quality, they will force practitioners out of legal aid work. The Minister knows this has already happened with family legal aid work, as the Bar recently demonstrated with a report from King's College, London.

"Barristers will be shocked to find that the Ministry are effectively tearing up the rates of pay for defence work, which Lord Carter thought were value for money in 2007. Those rates were not increases; they did no more than bring fees into line with the inflation of the previous decade and represented an overall saving on the legal aid budget. As Lord Carter said, his regime was designed to help government forecast and control the cost of the legal aid system. At the same time he wished to see an adequate return for those he described as rightly acknowledged to be a credit to the legal profession.

"The Bar accepts that there has been a lack of parity between prosecution and defence fees. That disparity arose simply because the CPS did not revise their rates in line with those of Lord Carter. The Bar had therefore been working with the CPS to bring their fees closer to the level of defence fees. It is the height of perversity to turn this issue on its head and force defence fees down to the level of unacceptably low prosecution fees.

"The one thing on which Lord Bach and I agree is that "legal aid is vital for many people in the UK, particularly during the current economic downturn". But cuts of the scale proposed make a mockery of access to justice. Legal aid will become a second-rate service, where it is not a complete desert. Now more than ever spending on legal aid needs to be ring-fenced, and protected from the other savings which have become necessary at the Ministry of Justice."

The consultation on the proposed legal aid funding reforms will run from 20 August 2009 to 12 November 2009 and can be accessed on the Ministry of Justice's website.

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