England & Wales Bar response, Legal Aid reform

Bar Council statement in response to MoJ consultation on Legal Aid funding reforms – England & Wales

20 August 2009

Desmond Browne QC, Chairman of the Bar Council, commenting on the publication today of the Ministry of Justice consultation ‘Legal Aid: Funding Reforms’ said:

‘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. ‘

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