Legal Aid

Committal fee challenge fails

PUBLISHED March 30, 2012

Friday 30 March 2012 by Catherine Baksi

The High Court has ruled that the government's decision to scrap lawyers' fees for committal proceedings was lawful.

Dismissing the judicial review sought by the Law Society, Lord Justice Burton cited the impact of legal aid fee cuts on lawyers.

'No one with any acquaintance of the courts could not be mindful of the very serious financial pressures that cuts in legal aid have caused to solicitors and barristers alike,' he said.

But he ruled that the change to a funding order that came into force on 3 October 2011 was not unlawful.

The amendment reduced by £318 the overall fee received by lawyers for the work done in the magistrates' court in either way cases that are sent to the Crown court, but that did not mean that lawyers were required to work for no remuneration, said the judge.

'The result of the amendment order is that the fee formerly payable for the Crown court work alone covers both magistrates' court and Crown court work,' he added.

'Undoubtedly, this results in a substantially lower payment being received by the solicitor. That is the result, and the purpose, of the amendment order.'

A Law Society spokesman said it is disappointed with the judgment and considering whether to appeal. Not to have mounted the challenge would have been to accept the lord chancellor's decision to remove the fee, he said, which will leave defendants unrepresented in the magistrates' court.

He added: 'The Society is disappointed the court accepted the lord chancellor's argument that the fees formerly covering Crown court work now covers both magistrates' court and Crown court work, despite there being no increase in the latter.

'For now, practitioners will have to consider the implications for their firms, and take such steps as are economically necessary in the light of the decision, consistent with their professional obligations.'

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: 'At more than £2 billion a year, we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world. We have brought in a number of controls to reduce legal aid fees in criminal cases.

'The changes that we have made to criminal legal aid fees - including abolition of the separate committal fee - ensure better value for the taxpayer and promote swift and efficient justice.'

The full judgment can be read on the website of the British and Irish Legal Information Institute.