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Law Society not "able to understand" legal aid cuts

15 September 2009

Robert Heslett, president of the Law Society, has said that the MoJ’s latest plans for legal aid cuts are so deeply flawed, full of ambiguities and contradictory statements that the society is not “reasonably able to understand quite what the proposals are”.

The MoJ announced last month that it was planning to slash the fees paid to duty solicitors in “expensive and oversubscribed” areas such as London, and cut payments to defence advocates by up to 23 per cent.

Lord Bach, the legal aid minister, said the measures were necessary to increase access to civil legal aid (see, 20 August 2009).

However, Heslett said it was “impossible to respond coherently” to the proposals in their current form and as a result the society was complaining to the consultation co-ordinator at the MoJ, Julia Bradford.

“We do not understand the policy aims behind the cuts – is it simply to achieve overall savings to the legal aid fund or to divert money from crime to other areas of legal aid?” Heslett asked.

“Is there an amount of saving that the ministry wishes to achieve? Until this is known, no respondee to the consultation is in a position to judge whether the proposals in the paper are the appropriate way of achieving this objective.”

Heslett said it was unclear what the concept of “oversubscription” meant in the context of duty solicitors or what was meant by the “homogenisation” of their fees.

He went on: “In respect of the proposals for advocacy fees, what is the CPS scheme with which it is proposed that defence rates should be harmonised?

“When will the CPS scheme come into effect? If exact parity in rates is not appropriate, what differential is appropriate? What are the limits of harmonisation, and when might the move towards harmonisation start?

“We do not think that we can provide a satisfactory response to the paper without these issues being clarified.”

Heslett added that the proposed cuts left levels of fees paid to solicitors under next year’s BVT pilot scheme “open to serious uncertainty”.

A spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice said the consultation proposals were intended to “further rebalance legal aid spending”.

She went on: “The proposed changes will generate savings which will help to sustain the legal aid budget over the next spending review period, ensure that we focus criminal legal aid spending effectively and protect the civil fund as far as possible from any rise in criminal spend.

“We want to prioritise access to social welfare law advice during the economic downturn and the LSC has increased investment in these categories of law over the last year.

“The proposals set out will help us set civil funding at a level which will allow for a continuing increase in legal help volumes.”

In a separate development the MoJ has announced that its permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabati, has waived his performance-related pay for the current financial year.

A spokesman said permanent secretaries across all government departments had agreed to the move.

According to the ministry’s resource accounts for the financial year to 31 March 2009, Sir Suma earned at least £195,000, an increase of 2.4 per cent on the previous year. He also received benefits in kind worth £34,500, relating to use of a car.

Phil Wheatley, director general of the National Offender Management Service, saw his pay rise to £170,000, an increase of 2.1 per cent.

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Legal Aid Courts & Judiciary