Government's Own Lawyers Condemn Legal Aid Changes
Rawlinson, Kevin, The Independent (London, England)
Legal aid cuts 'will put end to fair criminal justice system'
The Government's own lawyers have condemned its proposed changes to legal aid as "unconscionable", warning the Attorney General that the reforms will "create an underclass" with no access to justice.
In an open letter to Dominic Grieve, 145 barristers on the Attorney General's Panel of Counsel set out their fears about the reforms. It is believed to be the first time that the Government's own legal advisers have publicly criticised its policies.
In the letter, the lawyers say the planned changes, which would make it more difficult to bring judicial reviews, would affect society's most vulnerable. They add that reductions in the availability of legal aid would make access to the courts impossible for some.
"Judicial review is important, not because such individuals have more rights, but because they have fewer," the letter reads. "To deny legal aid altogether to such persons, so that even the minimal rights provided to them by the law cannot be enforced, is in our view unconscionable."
The Ministry of Justice wants to increase the cost of bringing judicial review applications, while cutting legal aid fees and awarding contracts through competitive price tendering. It hopes to cut the legal aid bill by around 220m. Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, announced last month that judicial review applications would only receive legal aid funding once a judge has agreed the case is strong enough to proceed to a full hearing.
Under the proposals, access to civil legal aid will be restricted to those who can prove that they have been living legally in the UK for at least a year. On this point, the letter says: "We have particular concerns about the proposals to introduce a residence test for civil legal aid. This risks creating an underclass of persons within the UK for whom access to the courts is impossible."
Lawyers contacted by The Independent said they could not remember another time that the Attorney General's Panel of Counsel - barristers appointed to act for the Crown or government departments - had staged such an intervention.
"In the past, barristers and solicitors of all persuasions - as well as judges - have vigorously warned the public that the legal cuts by Chris Grayling are going to decimate the criminal justice system," said John Cooper QC, who has led the legal profession's opposition to the reforms. …