Categorized | Criminal Justice, Legal Aid

Lord Neuberger speaks out

Lord Neuberger speaks out

In a speech last Tuesday to the Institute for Government, Lord Neuberger, president of the supreme court, warned that plans to cut £220m more from the legal aid budget could put at risk access to justice for all, particularly the poor, the vulnerable and the disadvantaged.

It was a mistake, he said, to have a new legal aid regime with a costs structure “which will drive out the best lawyers.” Reductions in legal aid and cutting the cost of litigation would have a knock-on effect on the cost of the courts. Less legal aid would result in more unrepresented litigants “and worse lawyers”, longer hearings and judges having to spend more time considering cases. He also warned the government against restricting access to judicial reviews. “We must always bear in mind that the ability to hold the executive to account is essential to the rule of law,” he said.

So the UK’s most senior judge joins the chorus of opposition. Crown court judges had already delivered a damning response to the MoJ proposals. The Council of Her Majesty’s Circuit Judges said “We are saddened that the measures proposed seem to be based upon bald assertions concerning the cost of provision of legal aid in the United Kingdom but without analysis of the factors involved.” In their view “insufficient regard has been paid to the increased burden, and increased cost upon the courts, both staff and judiciary, of a substantial increase in the number of litigants who are neither represented nor have the benefit of legal advice in formulating and preparing their cases.”

James Welch, legal director of Liberty, said: “Squeezing out decent criminal practitioners will drive down standards and inevitably lead to miscarriages of justice.” Liberty also expressed deep concern about proposals which “without insight or evidence threaten to undermine fair trial protections, remove access to justice for many vulnerable people and significantly reduce government accountability.

Liberty’s view is that “the fact that these proposals are to be introduced through secondary legislation, without even the protection of proper Parliamentary scrutiny, reveals an apparent deep and troubling contempt for access to justice and the crucial role it plays in a democratic society.”
In a strongly worded submission to the MoJ, the Bar Council says the government risks “damaging the British justice system, which is renowned worldwide for fairness and impartiality.” The reforms “will have an adverse impact on access to justice for some of the most vulnerable, deprived, and socially excluded groups, which will have a pernicious consequence in undermining social cohesion”, they say.

The MoJ’s own Impact Assessments concede that minority clients and lawyers will suffer severe and disproportionate discrimination. BAME law firms serving their local communities around the country will be amongst the first victims of the 75% cull in providers. “This is a wholesale attack on choice and competition, which are supposed to be the bedrock of Conservative philosophy” said Jo Sidhu QC, Co-Chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers. Prominent solicitor-advocate Imran Khan warned that cases such as Stephen Lawrence, Victoria Climbié and Zahid Mubarek would not be taken in the future.

MoJ are still accepting submissions on the consultation and the total is now over 16,000. Either this is a cynical way of indicating that their minds are already made up or they are allowing their timetable to slip. It would take pig-headed obstinacy of the highest order to ignore the combined weight of the universal and distinguished opposition. The Justice Committee will take oral evidence from Grayling on Wednesday 3 July. Perhaps he will then reveal his obstinacy quotient.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the Solicitors Regulation Authority revealed last Friday that more than 30 of the top 200 UK firms are in serious financial difficulty. The regulator is in what it calls ‘intense engagement’ with 160 firms at risk of failure, of which eight are in immediate danger. Fat cat lawyers?

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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