The scope of criminal legal aid has not been cut back for obvious reasons, and so it may be tempting to think that criminal legal aid has escaped relatively lightly.
However, there is no room for complacency. Some clauses in the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill are giving crime practitioners cause for concern. For example, the fact that new Head of Legal Aid Casework will be answerable to the Justice Minister, also responsible for the Courts, Prisons, and the Probation Service, could cause conflict between different budget priorities, even though the Minister is precluded from involvement in individual cases.
There has been a chorus of protest against clause 12 of the bill (e.g. see letters to The Times dated 19 July 2011), which allows for means and merits tests for advice in Police Stations. Despite the Minister’s explanation that this was left in from a previous draft in error, it is a glimpse into an abyss where miscarriages of justice could become commonplace. Criminal defence practitioners will not be reassured until it is withdrawn.
The fee cuts for criminal defence work will have different impacts on firms, depending on the kind of work they do. However, the forthcoming funding cuts, combined with those already implemented, could lead to some firms leaving the market. They are likely to have the most serious effect on London firms.
- The initial proposal to institute a single fixed fee for guilty pleas in either way offences the Magistrates’ court determined suitable for summary trial, has been modified so that both lower and higher standard fees are to be enhanced, and split between advocacy and litigation. The separate committal fee under the LGFS to be abolished. Estimated to save £25 million
- Fees for cracked trials in indictable only cases are to be reduced by 25% (solicitors) and 11% (advocates). Estimated to save £40 million
- Fees for murder and manslaughter cases will be aligned with those paid for those paid for rape and other serious offences. Estimated to save £15 million
- Two of the fee groups for cases of dishonesty to be amalgamated to form a single group. Estimated to save £4 million
- Remove London premium Estimated to save £6 million
- “bolt on” payments for advocates to be reduced. Estimated to save £9 million
- Payments in Very High Cost Cases (VHCC) for cases expected to take up to 60 days at trial, to be ‘harmonised’ Estimated to save £3 million