Last week in Parliament I supported a Labour motion seeking to reverse cuts to criminal legal aid fees which have prompted criminal barristers to take strike action across the country.
Driven by 40% cuts in the Ministry of Justice, the UK Government implemented cuts from the 1st April which change the way that criminal barristers are paid through legal aid for carrying out publicly funded work in the Crown Court. Spending on the scheme has already fallen by 40% since 2010, and under the new system the vast majority of cases will now receive a flat fee for a case, discouraging lawyers from undertaking complex cases which often require weeks of preparation.
This new scheme fails to recognise the level of work required to deal with the increasing amount of evidence and unused material involved, something highlighted by recently collapsed cases caused by failings in the disclosure of evidence. The Tories have undermined access to justice for too long, something we have seen in family law as well. The Government need to go back to the drawing board and ensure that everyone has the means to enforce their rights before the courts.
The changes have prompted a backlash from Barristers, the Criminal Bar Association (CBA) and the Law Society, with strikes now affecting Crown Court proceedings. President of the Law Society, Joe Egan, has also highlighted that, “Government cuts mean there are not enough young lawyers entering the field of criminal defence work” and that, “If this trend continues, in five to ten years’ time there could be insufficient criminal defence solicitors in many regions, leaving people in need of legal advice unable to access their rights”.
The House divided on the motion (Ayes 252, Noes 300) so our motion to revoke the Government's Statutory Instrument was unsuccessful. However, we will continue to raise concerns on this issue and call on the Government to reverse the damaging cuts.