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Criminal Legal Aid - Current Issues

The world of criminal legal aid has entered a long dark winter of despair. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force on 1 April 2013. It will cut £220m annually from the £1.1bn criminal legal aid budget by 2018/19, and remove entire areas – such as employment and immigration – from the scheme. Since 2013 there have been mass walkouts by barristers and solicitors in protest at the cuts, which will lead to 500,000 fewer instances of legal help to individuals and 45,000 fewer instances of legal representation. In June 2014, barristers and solicitors protested outside the Old Bailey and MoJ with a giant effigy of Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Cuts in criminal legal aid  of 17.5% on average for solicitors and 6% for barristers were confirmed by Grayling in February 2014. In July 2014 the president of the Law Society sent a letter to criminal law practitioners across the country warning that hundreds of solicitors firms will close if the government doesn’t postpone and reconsider cuts to fees and changes to duty contracts for solicitors covering police stations and magistrates’ courts. There are currently about 1,600 duty contracts but this will be reduced to 525 under the new scheme overseen by a quango, the Legal Aid Agency. Firms may form consortia to bid for contracts. Many firms that have previously excelled in crime are moving out of the area entirely or no longer accept publicly funded clients. Firms affected by the cuts (or those looking to pre-empt financial difficulties) are either abandoning legal aid altogether, merging, or shifting their focus from the high-street criminal cases to fraud and more serious financial crimes. The traditionally close relationship between barristers and solicitors could be threatened by the rise of public access work, which allows barristers to bypass solicitors to gain clients, with fixed fees agreed in advance. The number of legal aid firms has steadily declined in the past decade since the Legal Services Commission introduced a compulsory quality mark in 2000. In 2011, there were around 1,700 criminal legal aid firms, compared to 2,900 in 2000. The government’s ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ proposals aim to cut that number to just 400, as well as require firms to bid on contracts to represent defendants, which will squeeze fee income. It’s predicted that many smaller practices will be forced to merge as a consequence. The most controversial element of the Transforming Legal Aid proposals – depriving defendants of their right to choose their own solicitor – was quickly dropped after loud disapproval from the legal sector. Since the Jimmy Savile saga and the start of Operation Yewtree, there has been a huge rise in the number of historic sex abuse allegations being brought. The heat of the Savile case and the surrounding furore means that many cases are being brought on the strength of one allegation alone.

If you require representation at the police station or court then contact 01524 39760 available 24/7 where one of our 5 Duty Solicitors will be of assistance.

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