Categorized | Criminal Justice, Legal Aid

PCT consultation closes

PCT consultation closes

Probably the most heavily publicised consultation exercise has reached its closing date. After travelling road shows by the Law Society and MoJ, protests outside Parliament and a crowded meeting in London, the time for talking is over. Or, perhaps, just beginning.

Never can there have been such an overwhelming response to a set of proposals. It has been almost impossible to find supporters of the ill favoured, ill thought out and incomprehending scheme, which has no credibility in legal and financial terms. And the concerted statements of opposition have reached a crescendo in recent days.

The Legal Services Consumer Panel has branded the proposals as unfair and likely to damage the quality of representation in courts and police stations. The Panel’s response is particularly damaging since its members are appointed by the lord chancellor, who is also the justice secretary. Elisabeth Davies, chair of the Panel, said: “When a person’s liberty is at stake, they must have the freedom to choose who will defend them. The public will not have confidence in a system where the defendant’s lawyer is chosen by the very state seeking to convict them.”

In a letter to the Guardian, the housing charity Shelter and the Bar Council warn that changes to judicial review will increase homelessness. The Children’s Society claims proposed changes in the rules could leave trafficked or abandoned children at risk of exploitation. A letter sent to the justice secretary by senior Catholic officials warns that the residency test for legal aid will harm vulnerable people, with abuses going unreported and perpetrators of these crimes not brought to justice.

A Bar Council opinion poll found that 71% of respondents were concerned that cuts to legal aid could lead to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit if forced to use the cheapest defence lawyer available. Two-thirds of the respondents agreed that legal aid was a price worth paying for living in a fair society, with the poorest hit hardest by the proposed changes according to 75% of those polled.

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the bar, said: “The Ministry of Justice should listen to what people are saying and the strong messages delivered by this poll.” Even our local free newspaper, noted more for supermarket special offers than in-depth analysis, last week had a prominent feature under the heading “Innocent people could be forced to plead guilty.”

Magistrates allege the changes could lead to situations where the only legally qualified person in court is the court legal adviser or the district judge. The Young Barristers Committee and Young Legal Aid Lawyers predict that the fee cuts will force young lawyers out of publicly funded work and make it a financially unviable option for future students without private means.
Jo Sidhu QC, co-chair of the Society of Asian Lawyers, said the government’s failure to adequately consider the impact on BME clients and providers could leave the consultation open to legal challenge. The Black Solicitors Network highlighted the importance for many BME clients of being able to choose a lawyer who speaks their native language.

And there has been significant media coverage. Maura McGowan was interviewed on ‘Womans Hour’. On Tuesday, recently retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper, who received a standing ovation for his finely judged observations at the Friends Meeting House rally, made telling comments in the ‘Today’ programme. He identified two fundamental defects resulting from PCT: the elimination of the long-held right of a defendant to choose a legal aid solicitor, and the danger that new corporate providers would be under pressure to give advice that was in their financial interests.

The Ministry of Justice has received 13,000 responses. May your submission be read by an experienced and responsible team and receive the consideration it deserves. At least they can’t say they haven’t been warned.

This post was written by:

- who has written 460 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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