The government recently published a consultation paper, which will have the biggest impact on the way that criminal legal aid is administered. The proposed changes will not only affect lawyers but also members of the public and how they can have access to a solicitor.
The primary aim of the proposed changes is to save the government money. In fact the aim is to cut the criminal Iegal aid budget by £220m i.e. to reduce the current budget by more than 20%. The proposed changes are due to take effect from autumn this year. The proposed changes include the following:-
To reduce the number of firms that undertakes criminal defence work under legal aid from about 1700 to 400 nationwide. To put it another way the government will effectively close down 75% of the firms, which currently undertake criminal legal aid work. In order to secure a legal aid contract firms will have to bid for criminal cases. Whichever firms bid the lowest amount per case will secure a contract and will be able to undertake criminal legal aid work.
However the starting point is that firms must bid 75% below the current rates! How will this ensure a quality of service? If the starting point is that firms have to bid below 75% of the current rates how will firms be able to continue to operate at a profit and continue to employ experienced lawyers, invest in technology and explore all possible defences and legal points in each individual case? How will this ensure that those who have been charged with offences receive a high quality of service and receive a fair trial?
But as if this wasn’t bad enough the plan is to have a limited amount of firms in each area (Maximum of 400 in the country) so in Essex for example there will only be seven firms and in London it is proposed that there will only be three firms undertaking legal aid work. This will not only cut down on the choice of firms but also inevitably lead to delays and clients will be kept waiting at police stations and in courts whilst a small number of firms in the area try and deal with all the cases.
You will not be able to choose your own solicitor someone who may have represented you for many years and who you trust. Instead you will be allocated a solicitor you may not know and you will have no choice whatsoever.
We go to a shop to buy goods/services because we like the goods/services the shop provides. We ask a particular electrician to do some work because someone has recommended him/her or because we have used him/her in the past and we are happy with the service provided and trusted the person to do the right thing. So even though your own solicitor will know you, your background, your family history and you trust the solicitor. You will not have any freedom of choice and will not be able to instruct your own solicitor but will be given someone in your area who you do not know or trust even though your livelihood maybe at stake!
There have already been drastic changes to the civil and family law so that now it is virtually impossible to get legal aid for those cases. When I first started as a solicitor even those that got charged with shoplifting were given legal aid because a conviction might affect their reputation and or livelihood. Now people will only get legal aid if they are at risk of going to prison. However even then their choice will be limited and the service they receive will be very limited and poor.
As people we only go to doctors when they are not well. So quite rightly we only go to criminal defence solicitors when they are arrested and or charged. You may think you will never be arrested because you are a law-abiding person. However sadly it is not only the guilty that get arrested.
The two men from Forest Gate who were suspected of being terrorists and one of whom was shot, Barry George who was convicted of killing Jill Dando, Colin Stagg who was charged with the murder of Rachel Nickell and the television presenter John Lesley are just a few of those who were arrested and charged with crimes of which they were ultimately found not guilty.
The proposed changes to the legal aid system will mean over 70% of the current firms will either merge with bigger firms or simply just stop doing criminal defence work. If the government has its way we will have a ‘Value range’ similar to the supermarkets type of criminal defence system where quality maybe important but it must be cheap above everything else and no matter how good the local small firm is it will no longer exist and you will just have to go to a bigger firm where you will be more likely to be treated as just another client.
Until such time the changes are implemented you can still contact a solicitor that cares and is diligent with his client’s best interests at heart. You won’t be treated as just ‘Another client’