While most people are aware to at least some degree the ease that government agencies can tap-in to our private communications and stored data, few do anything about it. Of course most of us wouldn’t know what to do or where to begin, but it’s worth remembering it’s not just your Assanges and Snowdens who are targeted.
Criminal defence barristers walked out of court for the first time in legal history yesterday to protest over government plans to cut their fees by between 17.5 and 30% as the Ministry of Justice seeks to cut £220 million from the legal aid budget.
AFTER months of insightful articles in the legal blogosphere expressing contempt over the government’s proposed legal aid reforms, lawyers finally went public in recent weeks holding demonstrations outside parliament and the Ministry of Justice.
The protests were well attended by the legal profession but left the impression it was a private battle between them and the government and had as yet failed to draw in the wider public.
While the proposed legal aid reforms will affect hundreds and thousands of people up and down the country women’s support and advocacy groups have warned that women are particularly at risk: those who have suffered from domestic abuse or rape, single mothers, women fleeing to or trafficked into the UK and sex workers.
The loss of trusted lawyers, restricted judicial reviews and residency tests can only further isolate women who need professional support and representation when a shrinking state is deciding on their welfare.
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.
Judicial reviews are an essential tool to hold public authorities to account. They are used to force the government, local authorities, the police and other public bodies to justify their decisions, abide by the law and fulfill their obligations.
The government proposes to limit their use to cases that have a good chance of success saying ‘we continue to believe it is important to make legal aid available for most legal aid cases’. This statement, however, is misleading.
Apart from limiting access to legal aid the government plans to save money by driving down fees payable to legal aid lawyers for their services. The key component of the policy is to reduce the number of government of legal aid providers from 1,600 to 400. This, it says, will create economies of scale and reduce overheads as existing companies merge, new ones are formed and external service providers, such as haulage firm Eddie Stobart, enter the market.
Companies will then bid for contracts (through Price-Competitive Tendering (PCT) knocking at least 17.5 per cent of current prices) covering particular geographical areas where they must offer the full range of legal aid services – attending police stations, representing clients in court, appeals – in every field of law (long and complex cases are excluded from the process). To achieve this, however, companies must be guaranteed an equal share of the work so the government has proposed that it will appoint solicitors in some arbitrary fashion rather than let people chose. And here lies the problem.