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Criminal defence lawyers accused the government's latest cost cutting measures, which ministers claim will save up to £19 million from the legal aid budget, of failing to add up this week.
Yesterday, the legal aid minister David Lammy revealed a package of measures, including abolishing advocacy assistance for early hearings in the magistrates' courts; restricting the court duty solicitor scheme; abolishing post-charge advice and assistance; and limiting legal advice in the police station to telephone advice in certain cases.
"I am concerned that legal aid should continue to be available to those who need it the most," David Lammy said. "Our £2 billion legal aid budget is the largest in the developed world and ensures that those accused of a serious offence will be able to obtain legal advice and representation, whatever their means. If people fall on hard times, they should be able to rely on legal aid, as should the socially excluded." There were also plans to cut the court's discretion over imposing defence costs orders, which are currently determined by judges in the Crown Courts. According to the DCA, the proposals "should release funds of £15–19 million within a year".
Helen Cousins, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, said that "large numbers of people" would no longer be able to get legal help or advice before their court hearing. "These cuts will also take away almost all legal help for motoring cases, the duty solicitor at court will have to turn them away," she argued. Last week David Lammy flagged up bringing back a means test for defendants in magistrates' courts so that better-off people would have to pay for their own defence. The RAC attacked the proposal on the grounds that means testing could prevent many innocent motorists from going to court.
Helen Cousins also argued that proposals could backfire. "The prospect of vast numbers of cases being delayed or adjourned while those charged with the most serious offences wait to get Representation Orders granted before they can get legal advice is very real," she said. Legal aid solicitors "should not be expected to work and take a chance that they may not get paid at all", she added.
Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, predicted that proposals would increase the number of clients acting for themselves in Magistrates' Courts "with consequent delays and increased inefficiencies". "These delays will add to legal aid budget costs by increasing waiting times for solicitors, as well as increasing the costs of the Magistrates Court service," he said. "Moreover, these changes go directly against the work being done elsewhere in the DCA to encourage early preparation of criminal cases, because they remove the very parts of the legal aid scheme that allow such early preparation to happen."