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Planned legal aid cuts criticised

Source BBC News@

The figure of Lady Justice, at the top of the dome of the Central Criminal CourtThe Ministry of Justice said savings needed to be made to ensure the system continued

Government plans to cut legal aid in criminal cases have been criticised by an elite group of barristers used by it to prosecute the most serious crimes.

Treasury Counsel, appointed by the attorney general, said the cuts - £220m from a yearly budget of £1bn for criminal cases - were unsustainable.

The Bar Council and the Law Society also criticised the plans.

But the Ministry of Justice said savings were needed to ensure the system could help those most in need.

A final consultation on proposed cuts to legal aid in criminal work in England and Wales closed on Saturday.

Legal aid costs taxpayers about £2bn every year, with criminal defence making up more than half of the expenditure.

'Cuts before justice'

Government proposals include cutting fees in complex, high cost cases by 30%, and in other crown court work by up to 18%.

Treasury Counsel said the "entirely obvious and predictable outcomes will be lost quality and reduced supply of criminal advocates".

Meanwhile, the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, accused the government of putting "cuts before justice".

Handing in the Bar Council's response to the government, Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar, said: "Over a period of several months, we have entered into conversations with government openly and honestly to try to find a resolution on legal aid which would protect the justice system.

"It is now clear that the government has never sought to match that intention.

"It is hard to avoid the conclusion that it has put cuts before justice.

"What we have seen instead is the denigration of thousands of members of the profession, who work hard in the public interest, whether in civil or criminal courts, and have had to endure deeper cuts than anywhere else in the public sector."

'Maintain quality'

The Law Society, which represents some 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales, said it had some concerns about proposals for flat fees in magistrates' courts and the crown court and a single national fixed fee for police station work.

Law Society President Nicholas Fluck said: "To maintain quality, it is vital that we have the most diverse range of solicitors possible in the system within the boundaries of long-term financial viability.

"The current proposals for a single national fixed fee for police station work will have a disproportionate effect on firms in high-cost areas where the cost of doing business is greater.

"It is unwise to risk tarnishing the respect in which our justice system both domestically and internationally is held by an apparent incentive to plead guilty, which could jeopardise the relationship of trust between clients and solicitors."

The MoJ said the cut in high cost cases was to ensure it would impact high earners and not junior barristers, and denied other cuts were unjust.

'Generous' system

An MoJ spokeswoman said: "We have tried to ensure our proposals have more impact on high earners - 70% of criminal barristers contracted to Very High Cost Cases receive fee incomes of over £100,000, which is why we targeted the largest fee reductions at this type of work.

"Nor do we accept our proposed rates for more routine work are unjust. The minimum a QC would be paid for such a case is £306 each day.

"At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after our changes would still have one of the most generous.

"We agree legal aid is a vital part of our justice system and that's why we have to find efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer. We have engaged constructively and consistently with lawyers - including revising our proposals in response to their comments - and to allege we have not is re-writing history."

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