Under plans to save Pounds 200m solicitors will be paid fixed fees, with contracts going to firms like G4S
England's 800-year-old tradition of fair and open access to justice for all will be destroyed by sweeping government plans to reform criminal legal aid, senior judges and magistrates warn today.
Yesterday, the former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf said that the proposals would lead to a "factory of mass-produced justice" and miscarriages of justice. "The principle of fair justice must be important to us as a society. The rule of law and our system of justice is one of the areas where up until now we have still been able to look with pride. The long-term effects of this will be very serious and once the damage is done it will be very, very hard to put right."
In an attempt to save 200m by 2018, the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, plans to stop paying solicitors for the legal aid work they do - and instead give them a fixed fee for each case they represent.
It will be in lawyers' financial interest to recommend guilty pleas to their clients, a coalition of judges, magistrates and civil liberties groups warns. Their fears are backed by the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which investigates miscarriages of justice on behalf of the Government.
Criminal suspects will lose their rights to choose or dismiss a solicitor, and the number of accredited legal aid firms will drop from 1,600 to fewer than 400 - meaning that hundreds of small high- street firms could be replaced by huge contractors such as G4S.
"The Government is creating a system where potentially the same company could defend you, lock you up in prison and then rehabilitate you when you come out," said one judicial source. "It is the complete privatisation of justice."
The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury, is understood to have deep reservations about the plan. Sources suggest he believes it undermines the right - first enshrined in Magna Carta - that "to no man shall we deny justice". The plans would eradicate small firms of lawyers who understand the needs and problems of their clients, warned John Fassenfelt, chairman of the Magistrates' Association, which represents 28,000 voluntary justices who see the bulk of criminal cases before the courts.
"These changes will mean we will see larger firms like G4S come in and gobble up the smaller firms," he said. "That will not be good for community justice. "We see cases of solicitors representing individuals time and time again, who know about their individual problems and circumstances. …