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The Government’s litigation advisors, the Treasury Counsel, have waded into the row over legal aid cuts and warned that changes to the judicial review (JR) system will leave public bodies unaccountable to the public.
The open letter to the attorney general Dominic Grieve MP is signed by the more than 100 barristers who sit on the attorney-general’s A, B and C panels and the regional panel.
It comes in response to plans by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to increase the cost of bringing JR applications, while cutting legal aid fees and awarding contracts through competitive price tendering.
Ministers are planning to cut £220m from the annual criminal legal aid budget in England and Wales and have already slashed £350m from the legal aid bill for civil cases.
Justice secretary Chris Grayling last month announced that applications for JRs would only receive legal aid funding once a judge has agreed the case is strong enough to proceed to a full hearing.
In response to the proposal the Treasury Counsel letter stated: “Judicial review is important, not because such individuals have more rights, but because they have fewer. To deny legal aid altogether to such persons, so that even the minimal rights provided to them by the law cannot be enforced, is in our view unconscionable.
“By ensuring that officials are accountable to the law, judicial review provides a powerful corrective to poor decision making, the importance of which goes well beyond the relatively small number of cases which get near a court.”
Plans to intoduce a residency test to restrict access to civil legal aid to those who can prove that they have been lawfully resident in the UK for 12 months have also been slammed.
The Treasury Counsel barristers said they had particular concerns about the proposals, stating: “This risks creating an underclass of persons within the UK for whom access to the courts is impossible.”
Yesterday the MoJ again released figures outlining the biggest earners from legal aid contracts. London firm Duncan Lewis billed £14.6m in civil legal aid in 2011/12, the MoJ said.
The Bar Council, however, issued a statement in response, saying “Once again, the Ministry has relied on historic and misleading figures relating to a very small number of the highest legal aid earners in order to justify sweeping legal aid changes.”
The body also refused to facilitate proposals for price competitive tendering (PCT) for criminal legal aid. The Law Society has also hit out at the plans which, it said, are “unworkable”.
Chairman of the Bar, Maura McGowan QC, said of the proposals: “Preserving competition between service providers is simply not compatible with price competitive tendering. Real quality requires clients to be able to choose their lawyer, not to be allocated one by the same Government which is charging them with a criminal offence.
“The Bar has no plans to develop a scheme which will wreck the criminal justice system and drive over a thousand solicitors’ firms out of business.”
Barristers came out in protest against the plans again this week with Blackstone Chambers’ Dinah Rose QC and Mike Fordham QC both slamming the proposals and arguing that they would take away legal protections from the most vulnerable people in society.