Two committees of MPs blast government over legal aid cuts

Cuts to criminal legal aid risk eroding rights to legal advice and undermining the rule of law, the Justice Committee warned.

Five days earlier the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) warned that cuts have created legal aid ‘deserts’ that have made human rights ‘unenforceable’.

Both came as the government continues work on the overdue post-implementation review of the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.

In its Criminal Legal Aid report, the Justice Committee called for a ‘comprehensive and independent’ review to devise a ‘sustainable and user-focused’ scheme and for an urgent cross-departmental review of all criminal justice funding to ‘restore resources to a level that enables the system to operate effectively’.

Committee Chair, Bob Neill said: ‘There is compelling evidence of the fragility of the criminal Bar and criminal defence solicitors’ firms’, which puts rights to advice at risk. The government, he said, ‘cannot kick these problems down the road any longer’.

Bar Chair, Andrew Walker QC said: ‘This report shows clear and candid cross-party acceptance of what the legal profession has long been warning about: that years of savage cuts have led us to a crisis in criminal legal aid, which in turn threatens the future efficiency and effectiveness of our criminal justice system.’

He called for the 3.5% pay increase promised to public sector workers to be extended to criminal lawyers, saying there is ‘no justification for excluding the dedicated barristers and solicitors whosedaily struggles keep the criminal justice system going’.

The JCHR warned that legal aid cuts have made it ‘unaffordable’ for many people to enforce their human rights and have created ‘legal aid deserts’, as practitioners can no longer afford to provide legal aid services.

It called for an urgent review of the legal aid eligibility criteria and exceptional case-funding scheme and more legal aid for families at inquests. Committee Chair, Harriet Harman said: ‘For rights to be effective they have to be capable of being enforced.’

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) issued statements with its usual line about spending £1.6m on legal aid a year, but did not address the findings of either report.

* In the judicial review brought by the Law Society, the Divisional Court struck down the government’s ‘irrational and unfair’ decision to cut by up to 40% solicitors fees paid under the Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme.

Lord Justice Leggatt and Mrs Justice Carr slammed the consultation as ‘so unfair as to be unlawful’, due to a failure to disclose key costs analysis, and criticised the ‘positively misleading’ MoJ impact assessment.

In a damning line, the court rejected the government’s submissions that consultees ought to have deduced there was an analysis and sought it, stating: ‘It is difficult to express in language of appropriate moderation why we consider these arguments without merit.’

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