The Law Society is set to launch a judicial review of the government?s move to drastically reduce the legal costs that defendants can reclaim if they are acquitted of a criminal offence.
A regulation introduced by the Ministry of Justice at the end of October removed the power of the courts to refund ?reasonable? legal costs, and instead capped costs at legal aid rates. The Society said that this rate is ?far short? of the actual defence costs and will ?hit hardest? working taxpayers who are ineligible for legal aid. It said that ordinary people cleared of criminal charges might be forced to defend themselves or face financial ruin, and that miscarriages of justice could result.
An early day motion opposing the government?s change has been tabled by Conservative shadow spokesman on legal affairs Henry Bellingham and has been signed by 27 MPs. Law Society president Robert Heslett said that the Society has lobbied on the issue and he has written to all members of the Justice Select Committee urging them to oppose the change.
The Society?s action is being backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales.
Chancery Lane has called on the government to reverse the change and said it will apply for judicial review on 15 December if no satisfactory response is received. Heslett said that the Society has been left with ?little option? but to take legal action.
?Sometimes it is necessary to stand up against the tide which is eroding access to justice,? he said. ?Many people are not eligible for legal aid but are not on big incomes? Capping the repayment of costs in this way is not fair.
?We consider that the government has used powers granted to it by parliament for an improper purpose and that is the basis of our challenge. Sadly, in our view, the government has been steadily eroding access to justice for years.?
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ?I am aware of a recent complex case where a client was cleared of grievous bodily harm charges. The lawyers successfully recovered most of the preparation costs from central funds. However, applying the new rates and scales which came into effect on 30 October, less than 17% in preparation costs would have been recovered, leaving the innocent client with around 80% of the costs.?
Stephen Smith, deputy general secretary of the Police Federation of England and Wales, said: ?The result of the proposed change will put the federation under severe financial strain or place police officers in a position where the direct cost to them is prohibitive to fighting a charge that they categorically deny. To that end, the new regulations are unfair and a backward step to equal access to representation and justice.?
London firm Kingsley Napley has been instructed by the Law Society. If the administrative court grants the Society permission to proceed with judicial review, the matter will come for final hearing around April 2010.
Prior to the government regulation, acquitted individuals paying privately for their representation could recover their costs of defence from central funds.