Legal Aid

Spending on legal aid 'already falling'

PUBLISHED November 26, 2009

The real amount the government spends on criminal legal aid is already falling despite further planned cuts, according to an exclusive More4 News investigation.

Figures have been obtained which show the amount spent on criminal defence schemes in England and Wales in the Crown Court, the Magistrates? Court and police stations has fallen.

In police stations and magistrates courts the sum has been falling for the last five years, from ?516 million in 2003/04 to ?454 million in 2007/08, a fall of 12 per cent over five years.

In the crown courts, the amount spent has risen over the last five years, but fell from ?719 million in 2007/08 to ?689 million in 2008/09, a four per cent fall in just one year.

The government claims total spending on criminal legal aid is "growing exponentially" as it plans cuts to criminal defence fees for barristers. Ministers are proposing an 18 per cent drop in Crown Court advocacy fees. It comes on the back of similar reforms in other areas of criminal legal aid.

But the cuts are being opposed by solicitors and barristers alike. In an interview with More4 News, the Chairman of the Bar Council, Desmond Browne QC warns these cuts could lead to an increase in miscarriages of justice.

He said: "It is essential that people are properly represented because otherwise, if they are ineffectively prosecuted, the guilty are acquitted and worse, to most people's minds, if they are ineffectively defended, then the innocent are convicted.

"And with that comes an enormous social cost of trying thereafter of trying to put right a major injustice."

Ross Dixon, a solicitor at Hickman and Rose, agrees. The firm used to be one of the biggest in criminal legal aid work. But now, he says, even after cutting staff numbers and downsizing offices the firm simply cannot afford to do criminal legal aid work any more.

He said: "There will be some cases that result in miscarriages of justice, people going to jail when they shouldn't have done. Those are the people we should really be concerned about in this whole process."

Trevor Haskayne, 67, a travel company director, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in 1995 after a jury convicted him of a ?6m drug smuggling plot. His conviction was later overturned, but only after he had spent nine years in jail and been released for good behaviour. He has not received any compensation.

He spoke to More4 News about the impact on his life: "I have ups and downs about the whole thing. I get angry. And it's all a bit sad really... It's all been a bit unfair.

"A guy said to me the first night I was banged up... 'Got a good brief? Get the best. Sell the wife, sell the house. Get the best you can get. It's the only time you're going to get some justice.' And he was right!"

The government denies its cuts will cause a rise in the number of miscarriages of justice that happen in courts in England and Wales.

Legal Aid Minister Willy Bach told More4 News: "This is a dispute about the amount of wages, salary, that [barristers] get. You must see it in those terms. To put it in more highfalutin terms about people not getting good representation, I think, is a cover. It's not right... It's about time, if I may say so, that barristers realised that they have to make sacrifices during this recession."