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Lawyers defy ConDems assault on justice system

Lawyers are normally known for their measured language. But their anger over the government’s pseudo-consultation over cuts to legal aid which will undermine defendants’ rights, knows no bounds.

This morning, former appeals court judge Sir Anthony Hooper described the proposed “robust quality assurances process” as “gobbledegook”. The Bar Council said the plans would wreck a “world-renowned” justice system.  

Lawyers’ organisations calculate that the cuts mean that some 75% of people will lose the right to legal aid, meaning around 200,000 fewer cases. They are the most severe cuts since the system was introduced in 1949.

The legal profession was given a derisory two-months to consider proposals outlined in “Transforming Legal Aid”, published by justice secretary Chris Grayling on April 9. He wants to cut £220 million from the criminal case legal aid budget. The consultation closes tonight.

Grayling’s proposal to introduce Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) removes the right of those seeking legal aid to chose their own lawyer. It allows bidding from corporations such as delivery and transport Stobart Group and security firm G4S. The criterion is price, not quality or personal trust.

The Bar Council, which represents lawyers in England and Wales has shredded the claim that PCT can provide a just provision of legal aid. In its response to the consultation, the Bar Council says PCT is “deeply flawed [and] ignores fundamental human rights”.

In a 150-page response, the Bar Council warned that outsourcing legal work would destroy many smaller solicitors’ firms and “rapidly destroy” the criminal defence system. There were, it added, “serious implications for public confidence in the justice system”. Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said:

PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no government should be proud.

One of the main aim of the proposals is the reduction of applications for judicial review – in other words people’s ability to challenge the decisions of the executive, particularly those refusing the right to asylum.

A group of 90 QCs last week signed a letter arguing against the cuts in legal aid, saying that the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishing of Offenders Act 2012 had already limited legal aid for judicial review.

It is already extremely difficult to be granted permission by the courts for a judicial review. Of the 7,200 applications for permission considered by the courts in 2011, only 1,200 succeeded.

The Bar Council’s denunciation follows a huge protest last month when some 1,000 lawyers met to oppose the MoJ’s consultation paper. A wide range of professional legal bodies, lawyers, solicitors and QCs resolved overwhelmingly not to co-operate with the marketisation of legal aid.

The Bar Standards Board, which regulates admission to the profession, says the changes "may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial". It said plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a "guilty" or "not guilty" plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty.

The Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers is calling for “increasingly intense strike action” and collaboration between those working in the justice system. Significantly it calls for a campaign that is “not simply defensive” and that it depends on the support of the wider public.

The short time given for this consultation is evidence of the state’s continuing attack on the rule of law, whereby the judicial system has a form of independence from the executive.
Going beyond defensive action to assert, not only the rule of law but the need for a new democratic constitution, or a modern Agreement of the People, as the Haldane Society has done, is the best way to defend legal aid and other rights.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
4 June 2013

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