How transforming Legal Aid will affect people accused of a crime who cannot afford legal fees. A commentary by Maura McGowan QC

The proposals contained in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) paper, Transforming Legal Aid, would completely alter the way people accused of a crime and cannot afford to pay their own legal fees, will be represented.

The proposals contained in the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) paper, Transforming Legal Aid, would completely alter the way people accused of a crime and cannot afford to pay their own legal fees, will be represented.

Some politicians and sections of the press claim the over-whelming public reaction to the proposals is simply fat cat lawyers bleating because the racket they have been engaged in is being brought to a timely end. That is unfair and untrue. Of course lawyers have an interest in their fees. But the profession is united with many other groups in protesting against the damage these changes would do to a system that is world-renowned.

A government that espouses competition, wants to cut the number of solicitors’ firms from 1,600 to 400 and puts in place a system whereby defendants who are charged by the state are represented by a lawyer allocated by the state, cannot claim to be acting in the public interest.

We will continue to work with the MoJ to find ways of saving money without doing irreparable damage to a system that sits at the heart of a democratic society. We have pointed out areas where the MoJ’s figures do not add up to the degree of savings sought. We have pointed out alternative means of funding, such as compulsory insurance for banks and firms against the costs of paying for representation of their employees charged with fraud. We have shown ways to make savings by using restrained assets from wealthy defendants. And we have suggested the abolition of the VHCC scheme, the avoidance of unnecessary hearings, the greater use of technology and stricter case management.

All the above could save money and would not destroy the best justice system in the world.

Maura McGowan QC is chairman of the Bar Council