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Solicitors say cuts to legal aid will favour the prosecution

Debbie White and legal adviser Geoff White are among those against changes to legal aid  (Pic by Jon Rigby)

Debbie White and legal adviser Geoff White are among those against changes to legal aid (Pic by Jon Rigby)

Solicitors fear further cuts to legal aid will lead to delays in the legal system and more people representing themselves in court.

Last year, the Government removed funding from areas of civil law including divorce and custody battles, personal injury and debt cases.

Criminal cases have also been affected with more people representing themselves in court.

On January 6, barristers and judges went on strike over more cuts due to take place in April. The detail is yet to be confirmed, but they will see legal aid contracts changed and rates paid to solicitors reduced.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said savings of £220m a year need to be made on the £2billion criminal legal aid budget. But solicitors fear the changes will put firms out of business and see less experienced solicitors taking up big cases.

Geoff White, duty defence legal adviser at Crawley Magistrates’ Court, explained the importance of open justice, citing the case of the two men recently convicted of the murder of fusilier Lee Rigby.

He said: “There was a full trial fought properly by both sides and that decision was the right decision. If they were represented by a couple of kids it wouldn’t be properly fought.

“If you take away the people who defend, you see the scales of justice tip. We have the best system in the world. It’s open and honest and totally respected. If this goes forward it will lose its authority.”

Rod Hayler from Old Bailey Solicitors in Horley said self-representation would slow down the system.

He said: “Magistrates and judges will have to satisfy themselves defendants have fully understood their options before they proceed with trials and/or sentence. This will mean that much of the work we lawyers do outside of the courtroom with our clients will have to be done by the judge in court.”

A MoJ spokesman said: “We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system and our proposals would continue to ensure a lawyer is always available for those who most need one as well as putting legal aid on a more sustainable footing for the future.”

“We have listened to lawyers’ concerns and had constructive discussions with The Law Society who acknowledged that, whilst it may be difficult, change is also inevitable. The proposals we agreed with them make sure legally-aided lawyers will always be available when needed and that people can choose the lawyer they want to help them.

“There will be a set number of contracts available for duty work which will be assessed on the basis of the quality and capacity of organisations bidding for them. In conjunction with The Law Society we have commissioned independent research to help inform our assessment of the number and size of duty solicitor contracts that would be awarded.”

The Sussex Law Society is fighting to stop the changes by inviting members to an event in Brighton on Saturday February 1. Emily Thornberry MP, Labour’s Shadow Attorney General will be at the The Brighthelm Church and Community Centre, North Road, Brighton BN1 1YD, for a discussion on Legal Aid. Anyone wishing to attend should email pfcwintergreen@btinternet.com.

Oliver Maxwell-Jones, President of the Sussex Law Society, said: “It is so important that the legal profession continue to put pressure on the government to ensure that they are fully aware of the impact of the proposed legal aid cuts. This is not about lawyers protecting their jobs, this is about ensuring access to legal representation for the public and events like these are a way of ensuring our voices are heard.”

 
 
 

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