The shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter came under attack from criminal solicitors today for saying that a Labour government would not be able to reverse legal aid cuts made by the coalition.
Speaking at the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) conference and AGM this morning, Slaughter said that if Labour were to come into power after the next general election, it would inherit the revenue budget for 2015-16 from the coalition.
He said the party would not be in a position to restore the money cut from civil legal aid, and would have to make mediation and other forms of alternate dispute resolution work.
However, Slaughter said his party would not proceed with a 8.75% cut in criminal legal aid fees planned for next summer 'without a fresh review of [its] impact and coherence'. The government introduced the first tranche of 8.75% fee cuts in criminal legal aid in March.
Slaughter said: 'There is already evidence that the legal aid budget is falling more quickly than even this government intended. And we are one to two years ahead, it appears, of their target of reducing that budget to £1.5bn. It's only right therefore to look again at the proposals in light of the overall financial resources available.'
Greg Powell, former president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA), said the cuts had been so severe that lawyers were below the level of economic viability in many cases 'and if you don't restore money you cannot cure the problem'.
He said: 'To come here and say that you're not going to restore a single penny of these coalition cuts and restore access to justice for millions of people who have been taken out of it, particularly in civil, shows a complete lack of vision and appalling way on which to proceed your… future policy for the criminal justice and civil justice system.'
A three-week consultation, Transforming Legal Aid: Crime Duty, was opened by the Ministry of Justice following a High Court ruling last month that reforms to criminal legal aid had been introduced in a way that was 'so unfair as to result in illegality'.
Firms were urged jointly by the Law Society, the CLSA and the LCCSA, to respond in detail on how they would be affected by the proposed two-tier contract system, which involves cutting the number of legal aid firms from about 1,600 to 525. The consultation closed on 15 October.
Slaughter said that if the situation with contracts was 'still limping along' next May, 'we will not implement it as planned, but we will sit down with you to negotiate'.