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Legal aid plans: Defendants 'will lose right to choose'

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Legal aid plans: Defendants 'will lose right to choose'

Post by Guest on 04.06.13 11:32

Legal aid plans: Defendants 'will lose right to choose'

4 June 2013 Last updated at 10:09

Plans to overhaul legal aid in England and Wales would remove the right of defendants to chose a solicitor, a retired senior judge has warned.

Sir Anthony Hooper said this would have a major impact on people who needed lawyers with specialist expertise.

The Bar Council, which represents barristers, said the plans threatened a "world-renowned" justice system.

The government said the right to a fair trial would not be affected and lawyers would have to meet quality standards.

'Envy of the world'

Ministers are planning to cut £220m from the annual criminal case legal aid budget in England and Wales.

Under the proposals there would be fewer organisations providing legal aid work. They would compete for contracts on price, with companies such as logistics firm the Stobart Group bidding for work.

“Start Quote

Someone will turn up at the door and say 'I'm representing you. And by the way, I'm employed by the following company'”
End Quote Sir Anthony Hooper Retired Court of Appeal judge
Sir Anthony said the plans risked harming a system of fair justice that was the envy of the world.

Sir Anthony, who retired as a Court of Appeal judge last year, identified what he described as two fundamental defects resulting from PCT.

One was the elimination of the long-held right of a defendant to choose a legal aid solicitor. Those arrested will be assigned a lawyer from a firm winning a contract.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme people with a disability would not be able to choose a lawyer who understood their condition, and those involved in complex cases would not be able to seek out specialists.

"If I'm arrested in Norwich on a complex fraud case, for example, I would be able under the present system to find maybe a solicitors in London or Manchester, or wherever it may be, who specialise in difficult fraud cases," he said.

"Not now. Someone will turn up at the door and say 'I'm representing you. And by the way, I'm employed by the following company'."

He also warned that where solicitors' firms currently competed on the basis of excellence, new corporate providers would be under pressure to give advice that was in their financial interests.

'Price trumps all'

The Bar Council's comments came in its 150-page response to a Ministry of Justice consultation on the issue, which ends later.

The council was particularly critical of what is known as price competitive tendering (PCT) being proposed by ministers as they seek to cut costs amid the financial squeeze on Whitehall departments.

“Start Quote

At a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the government's commitment to getting better value for taxpayers' money”
End Quote Chris Grayling Justice Secretary
Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said: "There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all.

"PCT may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer.

"Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no government should be proud."

The Bar Standards Board, which is responsible for regulating barristers, said the reforms "may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial".

Chairwoman Baroness Ruth Deech said: "While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly remain of the utmost importance."

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "We have one of the best legal professions in the world.

"But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the government's commitment to getting better value for taxpayers' money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.

"Wealthy defendants who can afford to pay for their own legal bills should do so. These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer and will not in any way affect someone's right to a fair trial."

The Ministry of Justice added that a disposable income cap of £37,500 per household would mean only those on a six-figure salary or above would be prevented from having automatic access to legal aid. Prisoners' rights to the support would also be curbed.

In April, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act removed legal aid from many areas of civil law.

Likes like the people who can't afford lawyers will lose out again

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