Tuesday 21 May 2013 by Catherine Baksi
Government claims that the legal aid system has lost credibility with the public are rebutted by a survey published today showing that seven out of 10 adults fear that criminal legal aid cuts could to innocent people being convicted of crimes they did not commit.
The poll, carried out by ComRes as the government consults on major changes to criminal legal aid, shows that two-thirds (67%) of the British public agree that legal aid is a price worth paying for living in a fair society. Two-thirds (68%) also agree that, at less than 0.5% of annual government spending, legal aid is a worthwhile investment to ensure basic freedoms.
In the poll commissioned by the Bar Council, eight out of 10 (83%) of the 2,033 polled say that people accused of a crime should be treated as innocent until proven guilty - only 6% disagree. Seven in 10 (71%) people are worried that innocent people could be convicted of crimes they did not commit if they are forced to use the cheapest defence lawyer available.
Three-quarters (75%) of the public say that it will be the poorest members of society who will be most affected if the government makes cuts to legal aid.
More than half of British adults (53%) say that the justice system is respected by people around the world because of the quality of our barristers.
Commenting in the results, Bar Council chair Maura McGowan QC (pictured) said that despite the efforts of successive governments to undermine public confidence in the legal aid system, most people regard it as a good investment.
She said: 'This poll provides the evidence which the government has failed to gather. The public thinks a properly funded legal aid system is a price worth paying for living in a fair society; this is not just the view of groups of lawyers.'
McGowan said that the government is 'desperately out of touch with voters' and had relied on 'lazy stereotypes' when formulating its new policies that would see client choice removed, eligibility cut work given to the cheapest available lawyers.
People do not want to see a further reduction of their defence against 'big government' she said, adding that an independent legal profession, which operates to the highest standards and competes on quality, is fundamental to a fair and democratic society.
The poll follows criticism by a legal services watchdog of the government plans to deny suspects that right to choose their own lawyer.
In its response to the Ministry of Justice consultation, The Legal Services Consumer Panel warns that the proposals are 'unfair in principle, are not the most effective way of making competition work, risk undermining quality and will harm vulnerable clients the most'.
Drawing on the findings of its latest tracker survey, the panel highlights that consumers who receive legal aid greatly value choice in the current system and says they are more likely to shop around than those who pay privately for legal services.
Panel chair Elisabeth Davies said: 'When a person's liberty is at stake, they must have the freedom to choose who will defend them. The public will not have confidence in a system where the defendant's lawyer is chosen by the very state seeking to convict them.'