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Government defends criminal defence cuts

22 June 2010

The government has defended its predecessor’s “unlawful” bid to save £20m by limiting recoverable defence costs to legal aid levels.

The new Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has confirmed it is considering an appeal against last week’s High Court ruling that blocks the former Lord Chancellor Jack Straw’s central funding scheme.

Responding to Elias LJ and Keith J’s decision, the MoJ said: “It is crucial for government to achieve value for public money, particularly in the current economic climate.

“The central funds scheme aimed to do just that by giving people accused of crimes access to a fair defence at a fair price.

“The scheme was designed to prevent spiralling legal costs while still ensuring access to appropriate legal support, and so we are disappointed with the ruling that the scheme cannot continue. The Ministry of Justice is considering its options and the appropriate next steps.”

Des Hudson, chief executive of the Law Society, which fronted the judicial review, has warned the new government not to attempt to resurrect the device, stating: “We are glad that this policy has been halted in its tracks. We recognise that there are severe financial constraints on the MoJ budget but we would urge the government not to seek to overturn this judgment.”

Overruns in the MoJ budget motivated the attempt to redefine the ‘reasonable’ costs a successful defendant could claim as legal aid rather than private rates, which the Law Society estimated would see recoverable costs plummet from £19,000 to the state-subsidised £2,800.

Handing down judgment last Tuesday, Elias LJ said the government’s scheme was a “decisive departure from past principles” which if allowed would be “some constitutional moment”.

Andrew Keogh, criminal defence solicitor, condemned the cost cap, stating: “The right of a citizen to full recompense when he has successfully fought off an accusation of criminal misconduct was robustly articulated by the High Court. Cuts in the ministry of justice budget may well be necessary, but on this occasion the new government must look elsewhere, as they committed to do when in opposition.”

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