In its 150-page response to the Government’s Transforming legal aid consultation, which closed on 4 June, the Bar Council said that obliterating client choice ignores human rights. Further, that the adoption of the proposed changes “may be wholly unlawful, at any rate unless made the subject of explicit primary legislation”.

“What is being proposed, so soon after the implementation of the LASPO reforms, will emasculate legal aid and irreversibly damage the administration of justice in our country,” said Bar Chairman Maura McGowan QC.

Economic and statistical analysis, commissioned from the University of York and Europe Economics, found the Ministry of Justice’s thinking “muddled” at best, that it had “failed to consider hard evidence” and that the proposals were “a breathtakingly convoluted way” of finding savings. On current caseload and spending per case trends, the response said, substantial savings in criminal legal aid expenditure might be expected over the next four to five years, even if no changes to the system were made.

The Bar Standards Board (BSB), in its consultation response, issued a stark warning that the Government’s justice reforms could push innocent people to plead guilty. Financial incentives could pressure some advocates into telling clients to plead guilty when they’re not, said Chair of the BSB’s Quality Assurance Committee, Sam Stein QC: “These proposals will have a huge impact on an advocate’s ability to represent their client’s best interests – independently and fearlessly.” BSB Chair, Baroness Deech, said she wanted assurances that the public interest would be a “central factor in reaching decisions on the final shape of the legal aid fee structure” and demanded “the democratic scrutiny of parliamentary debate to prevent lasting harm to the credibility of the criminal justice system”.

In a separate announcement, the Bar Council stated that it has no plans to develop a quality system to facilitate PCT for criminal legal aid. The Lord Chancellor had asked the Bar Council to come up with a scheme to ensure quality within the remit of the Government’s PCT proposals.

The Ministry of Justice had not released the number of responses received as Counsel went to press, but said it “did not recognise” the figure of 13,000 circulating amongst lawyers. Meanwhile, the introductory statement to its consultation – that “the system has lost much of its credibility with the public” – has been countered by research. A Bar Council poll of over 2,000 members of the British public, conducted by ComRes in May, showed seven out of ten were concerned that cuts to legal aid could lead to innocent people being convicted. Sixty seven per cent agreed that legal aid is a price worth paying for living in a fair society. Also in May, a Populus survey of 2,000 was commissioned by the six Circuit leaders in conjunction with the Criminal Bar Association. Sixty four per cent felt the proposed cuts would negatively impact the British justice system. Eighty per cent feared they would not be able to afford legal fees under the proposed changes, and could be forced to represent themselves.