Pressure is mounting on Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling to sort out the impasse over legal aid cuts. A new legal challenge and growing disruption in courts around the country face the Lord Chancellor on his return to work after the Bank Holiday.
Yesterday leading criminal solicitors’ representative groups, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association jointly sought Judicial Review of how the Ministry Of Justice brought in legal aid cuts. Issuing proceedings, the lawyers claim the government consultation about publicly funded criminal defence was unlawful in the way it was carried out. The groups claim an economic report was unfairly and unlawfully withheld by the MOJ until long after the consultation was closed. The evidence, according to the LCCSA and CLSA, was then incorrectly applied to justify the government’s final 17.5 % cuts and much reduced contracts package which was announced in February this year.
In addition to this challenge to the legality of the legal aid consultation, court cases across the country are also now starting to suffer serious delays due to unrepresented defendants clogging up the system. Hull; Reading; Liverpool; Derby; Nottinghamshire, Devon and Cornwall, Somerset and Coventry and Warwickshire are worst affected areas.
The crown and magistrates court action was started by solicitors in April. As a result, defendants who cannot get a publicly funded solicitor to represent them and are unable to afford a private lawyer, are appearing without legal advice. This is causing delays and extra work for judges, the CPS and court administrative staff. Already there has been a case of an 81 year old man appearing undefended on attempted murder charges due to the action. A scuffle in a Birmingham court broke out when an unrepresented defendant did not follow court rules.
Nicola Hill, President of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association said,
Somehow it must hit home for the Justice Secretary that he’s not a law unto himself. He can’t impose swingeing criminal legal aid cuts without having done so fairly. The Judicial Review holds the MOJ to account. We’re not against change but we are opposed to change for change’s sake. We fully embrace making savings in a creaking criminal justice system - in the interests of justice and the tax payer. But when good lawyers are stopped from providing high standard legal representation to people who have the right to have their guilt or innocence tested, that’s when we must draw the line. Quite simply, Mr Grayling pushed these changes through without regard to legality.
The disruption in the courts is symptomatic of this approach. Like the well-publicised complex fraud trial in Southwark, it’s not just going to go away. It’s not going to somehow magically be sorted out. Unless the crisis running through the core of the criminal justice system is addressed, we’re going to see increased miscarriages of justice and inevitably costly appeals. Mr Grayling needs to swallow his pride, re-think his reforms, engage with us, the professionals, and put the word ‘justice‘ back into the criminal justice system.
Bill Waddington, President of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association commented:
Our concern is to protect the public interest and prevent the dismantling of the criminal justice system, considered up until now to be the best in the world. So far all our offers to engage have been ignored or dismissed. We take this action to protect the freedoms and rights of individuals who find themselves at the wrong end of a state-funded prosecution and above all to protect the rule of law.
Criminal defence solicitors who do legal aid work are taking action in various parts of the country to demonstrate what life would be like under the government’s proposals which if imposed will result in widespread chaos and meltdown . Already the CPS and the courts are experiencing delays as more and more unrepresented defendants pass through this complex system. These are but tiny examples of what life would really be like under the proposals . A stable and sustainable defence service is essential for the smooth running of the courts and the quest for fairness and justice .