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Blog: Legal Aid changes should not come at the price of justice

lucy_tony_and_city_centre.jpg.ashx.jpgIn Parliament today there was a debate on the future of criminal legal aid. Even though I can’t be in Parliament to speak on this issue I know that many in Manchester Central are concerned about this issue.

Indeed, I’ve been contacted by a number of local residents and legal professionals who are deeply concerned about Government proposals to on the future of criminal legal aid due. As well as writing to the Secretary of State directly to raise their concerns I recently submitted a response to the consultation on these changes.

I’m concerned that the Government’s proposals for the future of criminal legal aid may adversely affect the integrity of our criminal justice system. The legal aid system was established some 60 years ago by the 1945 Labour Government as an important part of our welfare system. It has contributed to access to justice for all, ensuring that no one has been excluded from seeking redress through the justice system through inability to pay for legal representation.

I’m concerned that the Government’s proposals are putting at risk the fundamentals of our criminal justice system. By focusing on the cost of legal provisions to the exclusion of quality, there is a risk that standards of representation will fall and that pressure will be placed on the accused persons to plead guilty where they are innocent or have a defence.

Furthermore, there are potential strong conflicts of interest as the same companies deliver legal support, transport prisoners between counts and prisons, run prisons and probation services. Replacing public services with a private monopoly could have serious untoward consequences on our criminal justice system. Maintaining the integrity of the legal aid system so that the public, victims and witnesses can still have confidence in the system to deliver open and fair justice is vital.

Solicitors in my constituency are very concerned about measures in the Justice Secretary’s Green Paper to competitively tender for contracts to provide criminal legal aid services. I understand the maximum price will be 17.5% below the current rates and a number of solicitors who have contacted me warn that this tendering process could “destroy” the legal profession.

Proposals for only a limited number of providers in each area are also concerning, as are measures to limit the choice clients have to choose their solicitor. Cutting advocates fees is also a major worry.

There are a number of further concerns as set out by my constituents who work in the legal profession including;
• The right for an arrested person to choose their own solicitor will be abolished;
• The loss of the majority of smaller high streets firms in particular areas due to contracts going to larger industrial scale firms;
• All incentives for excellent legal service will be removed by the new system;
• Profitability will trump quality of representation with new suppliers only concerned with how cheaply they can recruit lawyers to do cases quickly and cheaply;
• The changes could lead to less quality entrants into the solicitors profession due to the low levels of pay and conditions necessary for successful bids to be sustainable alongside adverse effects on the diversity profile;
• The independent criminal bar and chambers model will cease to exist, losing the collective wisdom and experience that comes with it;
• The quality of representation in the crown court will diminish, potentially leading to more miscarriages of justice.

Small independent firms who have been part of the legal landscape in Manchester for many years could be threatened by these plans, replaced by mega firms only interested in profit over justice.

Labour will continue to challenge the Government on these plans and I will look to work with colleagues to raise the concerns of local residents and organisations.

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