A city solicitor has warned hundreds of law firms across the UK face the prospect of closure if swingeing cuts to criminal legal aid are implemented by the Government.
The stark warning came from James Turner, chair of the criminal law committee at Birmingham Law Society, as a bitter war of words rumbles on between the legal profession and the Government.
Mr Turner, a partner at Birmingham’s Tuckers Solicitors, spoke out following a walkout by barristers in response to plans by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling to cut fees as part of a bid to slash £220 million from the legal aid budget by 2018-19.
Painting a grim picture of the consequences for many law firms, Mr Turner said: “The cuts threaten the closure of hundreds of firms of solicitors nationwide. In turn, solicitors and barristers face bankruptcy and their staff redundancy.”
He added that the Government’s proposals to cut funding for criminal aid follow several years of “chipping away” at a legal aid budget that is “already overstretched”.
Although he fears for the future of the legal profession he said the public is also set to lose out, with criminal defence lawyers representing “some of the most vulnerable people in our society”.
“For the public, the cuts will result in a reduction in the scope and quality of the service lawyers can provide,” he said. “It is deeply worrying the Government concentrates on the cost, not the value of the service provided.
“A robust criminal justice system is the backbone of any civilised society. If the cuts are brought in we will no longer be able to say with pride that we boast the finest justice system in the world.”
Mr Turner also warned the cuts could prove to be a false economy in the long-term, with a less well funded criminal justice system actually costing more.
He added: “When justice is not done it results in higher costs for tax payers, resulting, for example, in expensive appeal proceedings and payments of compensation.
“Perhaps more importantly, it results in the human cost to those affected by wrongful convictions including the defendants and their families, and society as a whole for failing in the duty to administer a fair justice system.”
Mr Turner also echoed concerns expressed in the Post by Tony McDaid, practice director of Birmingham’s No5 Chambers, and QC Michael Duck about access to justice for all and government ‘spin’ about ‘fat cat lawyers’ aimed at winning public support for the cuts.
He said: “Everyone arrested and detained by the police is entitled to free and independent legal advice. Legal aid is also provided to fund advice and representation before the courts. Not everyone accused of a criminal offence is guilty.
“You could be forgiven for thinking you don’t need these lawyers, that is until you or a member of your family do. Thousands of people every year depend on these lawyers to guide them through the maze of complicated criminal proceedings, without whose help they would have to attempt to defend themselves.”
The reality of life as a criminal solicitor was also laid bare. Mr Turner stressed they are often called out in the middle of the night to advise people who have been arrested. In return they get no extra payment, just a fixed fee for their firm - a figure which is set to be cut to £200 (including 20 per cent VAT), irrespective of the number of hours spent in attendance.
“The present market rate of payment to the solicitor attending is around £75 before tax,” said Mr Turner.
“Would your doctor make a home visit for such a fee? Could you hire a plumber to fix a broken boiler so cheaply?”