Junior Criminal Bar under threat from botched legal aid reforms warns Commons Committee

ON 2 February 2010, the influential House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) published a damning report on the Legal Services Commission’s handling of legal aid reform. The report on criminal legal aid procurement also warns that the increased use of solicitors to conduct work in the Crown Court is threatening the long-term future of the junior criminal Bar and may be affecting the quality of advocacy provided in those courts. The procurement of legal aid in England and Wales by the Legal Services Commission (HC 322) echoes many of the deeply held concerns of the Bar Council.

It criticises the LSC for ‘poor financial management and internal controls and deficient management information’. It says the Commission does not know whether its reforms are working or what they are doing to the sustainability of providers.


The Committee also says the implementation of the 2006 report on legal aid by Lord Carter of Coles has been delayed and reflects a lack of clear strategic direction at the LSC. The Committee complains of ‘confusion and uncertainty’ in the respective roles of theCommission and the Ministry of Justice, leading to duplication of effort and lack of clarity over who does what.

Commenting on the report, Bar Chairman Nicholas Green QC said:

‘What the PAC has found is what we have long feared. The reform of legal aid is in a chaotic state and is being conducted in a way which threatens the junior Bar, who are the lifeblood of the profession. It is galling, to say the least, for the Bar to witness such very damaging financial mismanagement, resulting even in the LSC’s 2008-09 accounts being qualified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, at a time when brutal cuts in legal aid will threaten the quality of representation in the Courts, as the Committee warns.’ Paul Mendelle QC, Chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, added: ‘After years of training, young barristers enter the profession burdened by debts running into tens, often scores, of thousands of pounds. They work extremely long hours and earn modest incomes, out of which they have to pay all their own expenses, for many years. Cuts like these will hurt the junior bar most and will force
many to give up publicly funded work.

Without a thriving junior Bar, there will be no barristers in the future, and the role of the self-employed advocate, which is fundamental to the proper working of the criminal justice system, will be lost.

At a time when public concern over the need properly and fairly to try crimes is as high as ever, to undermine the justice system through policy mismanagement and unreasonable cuts is reckless and irresponsible.

The profession’s efforts to maintain its diversity are being undermined by a legal aid system which seems to be in a perpetual state of near-crisis. The Public Accounts Committee’s report shows that this cannot go on any longer without causing lasting damage to the criminal justice system.’

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