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High Court holds out on Grayling

Legal profession waits to see if fair trials will be relegated to the 'dustbin of history'

20 January 2015

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Senior judges in the High Court have reserved their judgment into the Lord Chancellor's criminal legal aid reforms as expected.

The judicial review into the justice secretary's for two-tier contracts in criminal legal aid cases was heard by Lord Justice Laws and Mr Justice Cranston during a three day hearing. Sources told SJ, prior to the legal challenge being heard, that they did not anticipate a ruling straight away.

Reserving their judgment, Lord Justice Laws said: "We are under time constraints for judgment in this case but we are hardly going to get [judgment] tomorrow."

The High Court judge continued that, due to a full case load of criminal work, including appeals, it was unlikely they would be able to give judgment by the end of January.

The latest legal challenge to Chris Grayling's plans was brought by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association (LCCSA) and the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association (CLSA) in conjunction with the Law Society.

On the first day of the judicial review, Jason Coppel QC of 11KBW, acting for the LCCSA and CLSA, argued that under the Ministry of Justice's (MoJ) model, law firms would make a loss.

He continued that the MoJ should have conducted a proper investigation into the likelihood of investment finance for firms undertaking criminal legal aid work. Coppel also suggested that, had the MoJ done so, it would have reached the conclusion there was not sufficient finance available for firms.

This was followed on day two of the hearing by the Law Society's argument, represented by Dinah Rose QC, of Blackstone Chambers, that the MoJ's tender process was, besides being 'irrational' and 'disproportionate', was based on a 'manifest error'.

The legal team representing the Lord Chancellor responded on the third and final day of the hearing by arguing that the market for criminal legal aid services was unsustainable in its current form and, coupled with the MoJ's budget cuts, meant there was a need to reduce spending in such work.

Writing in The Independent following a report of an increase in self-representation in courts, Bill Waddington, chairman of the CLSA, said: "The Lord Chancellor has been warned time and again that his cuts to legal aid would result in a surge of self-representation among defendants.

"That is why, in conjunction with the LSSCA, we are fighting a judicial review in the High Court. If we are unsuccessful in our challenge, we could be consigning the notion of a fair trial to the dustbin of history for all by the privileged."

The recent survey, conducted in conjunction with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) and the Magistrates' Association, revealed that approximately one in five criminal defendants appearing in the magistrates court do so without a lawyer.

John van der Luit-Drummond is legal reporter for Solicitors Journal

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Legal Aid Courts & Judiciary