Criminal law specialists have accused ministers of cutting legal aid rates by stealth after the government announced that it would implement a controversial graduated fees scheme.
The Ministry of Justice said that it would not resurrect the second tranche of cuts proposed by Chris Grayling while he was lord chancellor.
In 2014 Grayling proposed a 17.5 per cent cut to criminal law fees, but the move caused uproar among lawyers and led to strikes and public demonstrations.
Grayling’s successor, Michael Gove, agreed to divide the cut in two and postponed implementation of the second reduction of 8.75 per cent. Ministers said yesterday that they would not resurrect that second round of cuts.
However, lawyers pointed out that ministers had proposed more cuts to a different area of criminal work in February. The proposals, which will be implemented in December, will reduce the number of pages of prosecution evidence in crown court cases used to calculate the graduated fee from 10,000 to 6,000.
The fee for additional pages will now be remunerated at hourly rates. A measure will also be imposed limiting costs payable from central funds to court appointees at the equivalent of legal aid rates.
Joe Egan, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, said that the move would be a false economy. “The relatively minor savings that might be obtained from these ill-advised cuts do not warrant the substantial damage they could cause to the sustainability of a very fragile market, and to access to justice in this country,” he said.
The society believes that the scheme will lead to payments being slashed for “paper-heavy” crown court cases.
Egan claimed that “rates for lower cases in the crown courts are now so low that firms doing this work have been making a loss. Often solicitors have been cross-subsiding this work with funding from bigger cases so they can represent vulnerable people accused of wrongdoing.”
He branded the cuts as “a quick-fix, money-saving solution. They are untenable, highly counterproductive and short-sighted.”
It is estimated that the government’s plan will cut fees by £26-36 million. A total of £336 million was spent in the 2015-16 legal aid budget.