During their campaign to challenge the government’s proposed legal aid reforms, cuts to solicitors’ and barristers’ fees were largely left off the agenda in concern over public perceptions of fat-cat lawyers living off the state. But the public should be concerned.
The new fee system will mean legal firms will be financially rewarded if they encourage clients to plead guilty as they will be paid the same as for a case that runs for up to two days. After that they will be paid a daily rate that will be cut by 30 per cent and be reduced the longer the case goes on.
So for an early guilty plea solicitors will see their fees rise from £500 for the day to £650 while a 17-day trial for a more serious case with thousands of pages of evidence will see fees paid to solicitors cut from £16,482 to £11,299, according to MoJ figures.
Lib Dem peer and QC Alistair Webster said: “How low can standards of public services be when you have the government, the state that prosecutes people, proposing to bribe defence lawyers to get their clients to plead guilty. It’s a disgrace.”
Furthermore the Ministry of Justice proposes limiting the number of barristers it funds for the defence to one. It currently matches the size of the prosecution’s team. In its consultation paper, the MoJ wrote: ‘There is no absolute requirement to provide legal aid to ensure total equality of arms between the parties, in terms of the number of advocates, so long as each side has a reasonable opportunity to present their case under conditions that do not place them at a substantial disadvantage to the other.’
Helena Kennedy QC questioned whether lawyers representing the government will see similar cuts to their fees. She said: “When Tony Blair decided to have Jonathan Sumption QC representing him at the Hutton inquiry, who do you think paid for that? When government departments pay for lawyers, who pays for that. Is that being slashed? Are government instructed council having their fees radically reduced?”
Polly Glynn, a solicitor at Deighton, Pierce and Glynn, said: “Legal aid has remained the same for many years. So it has gone from marginally profitable to not profitable. I’m embarrassed to say legal aid solicitors get paid less than teachers and less than nurses.”
The new legal aid law firms will also no longer be paid fees for attending police stations when people have been arrested. Instead they will be paid a fixed sum for the year based on the historical workload for the area and their bid for the contract.
The legal profession has expressed concerns this will force companies to employ cheap and inexperienced solicitors to represent clients who will be unable to go elsewhere.
Very High Cost Cases (VHCC), typically complex fraud cases, will be exempt from the Price-Competitive Tendering process and continue to be paid on a case-by-case, day-by-day basis, however, hourly and daily rates will be cut by 30 per cent too.
Clive Stafford-Smith, director of Reprieve who formerly represented people on death row in the US, said the UK was sleepwalking into a US-style legal aid system that makes a good defence the preserve of the rich.