MPs found ‘compelling evidence’ of the ‘fragility’ of the criminal defence sector in a report on recent changes to criminal legal aid published today. The House of Commons’ justice committee recorded ‘a worrying level of demoralisation’ amongst criminal defence solicitors and called the pressure placed on defence lawyers to review unused material ‘fundamentally unfair’. Recognising a suspect’s right to a lawyer, the MPs concluded that the recent reforms placed ‘these rights at risk—a risk that can no longer be ignored’.
‘In criminal cases, there is a common law right to legal advice, and a right to legal representation under the European Convention on Human Rights,’ said the chair of the justice committee Bob Neill. ‘There is compelling evidence of the fragility of the Criminal Bar and criminal defence solicitors’ firms, which places these rights at risk – a risk which can no longer be ignored. We heard first-hand the deep unhappiness among barristers about their situation and the future of the criminal justice system as a whole.’
‘The Government cannot kick these problems down the road any longer… . An effective criminal justice system is one of the pillars on which the rule of law is built. Under-funding of the criminal justice system in England and Wales threatens its effectiveness, tarnishing the reputation of our justice system as a whole, and undermining the rule of law.’
The MPs flagged up ‘an emerging pattern’ in evidence to its separate disclosure inquiry that the Litigators’ Graduated Fee Scheme (LGFS) and the Advocates’ Graduated Fee Scheme (AGFS) were ‘working against the ability of the defence properly to fulfil its role’ as neither scheme provided legal aid for reviewing unused material. They have called for ‘an urgent cross-departmental review’ of funding for all elements of the criminal justice system with the aim of ‘restoring resources to a level that enables the system to operate effectively’.
‘An effective criminal justice system is one of the pillars on which the rule of law is built; effectiveness also demands that the fabric of the criminal courts is maintained,’ the MPs said. ‘The under-funding of the criminal justice system in England and Wales threatens its effectiveness, so undermining the rule of law and tarnishing the reputation of our justice system as a whole, which is widely admired. We conclude that the under-resourcing of the criminal justice system undermines the prospects of successfully promoting our legal system abroad, a stated Government objective.’
- Solicitors had ‘serious grievances’ about the LGFS ‘given the absence of index linking, the 8.75% cut in fees imposed in 2014, and the recent cap on pages of prosecution evidence’; and there was also evidence of ‘a worrying level of demoralisation’ amongst defence solicitors;
- It was ‘regrettable’ that the Law Society was forced to ‘resort to bringing a judicial review to pursue its grievances’; and called on the Ministry of Justice to ‘take urgent steps to avoid this dispute having to be resolved by the courts’;
- It was also ‘regrettable’ that the Bar ‘felt compelled’ to take direct action in response to the new AGFS and noted that ‘the underlying reasons’ for the dispute were understandable;
- The report recommended ‘a system of annual review’ be built into the AGFS; and
- It noted that ‘the pressure placed on defence lawyers to fulfil their professional obligations’ by reviewing increasing quantities of unused prosecution material was ‘fundamentally unfair and likely to become unsustainable, and increasingly prejudicial to the defendant’.
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