By Adam Pogonowski

Yet another example of the Tories’ determination to attack the worst off in our society is their proposed reforms to criminal legal aid.

Legal aid has already been removed from civil law areas such as clinical negligence cases, personal injury and divorce. In short, this will leave some individuals unable to access the justice system in order to redress serious harm done to them.
This is worrying. But worse still is Grayling’s proposal to kill off the criminal legal aid system. The current scheme, which is out to ‘consultation’, advocates introducing Price Competitive Tendering for legal aid litigation. The Ministry of Justice’s plans are that there will be roughly five providers of legal aid litigation (solicitors’ services) per legal district (mainly divided by county). Firms will bid to win these contracts; the lowest price offered usually the winning bid.

The effect of this will be to wipe out 1400 of the existing firms of independent, small, local solicitors and see them replaced by large companies, such as (Eddie) Stobart Law (I kid you not) or Tesco Law. These ‘mega solicitors’ will apparently be able to achieve economies of scale , driving costs down, though many barristers and solicitors have questioned how this will be achieved. The proposal decimates the high street solicitor profession, allowing big multinationals to swoop in and swallow up the legal aid market.

If you are a legal aid user in each of the arbitrarily divided areas per county, and you are arrested and need legal representation, you will get no choice as to who your solicitor is. As things currently stand, anyone arrested, legal aid claimant or not, can choose who their legal professional is. Under the Tories’ plans, the poorest in society will have no choice in this regard and they will have to stick with their allocated lawyer, whether they are happy with this or not. Client choice therefore vanishes. In this case, the clients are the poorest in society, those arguably in most need of effective representation.

Things do not get any better. The ‘criminal litigation price competition impact assessment’, at paragraph 13 states:

“Providers will deliver an acceptable level and quality of service.”

It then continues, at paragraph 23:

“Client choice may in certain circumstances […] give an incentive to provide a legal aid service of a level of quality above the acceptable level specified […] as firms effectively compete on quality rather than price. The removal of choice may reduce the extent to which firms offer services above acceptable levels.”

Essentially, the Ministry of Justice and Grayling want a lower level of quality for the financially deprived ‘accused’ in our society. At the moment, the quality offered surpasses ‘acceptable’. To the Tories, this has to be discontinued. This is deeply unjust. The Tories are continuing their drive to hit the most vulnerable hardest, creating ever-deeper divisions in the country.

The criminal legal aid ‘reforms’ are just another arm of neo-liberal economics being played out by politicians who care little for the socially and economically disadvantaged and who care a lot about enriching powerful businesses. Removing client choice of lawyer, destroying small, local firms of solicitors (and all the while raising unemployment figures) and lowering quality of service, will prove more costly than the savings Grayling is trying to secure. At the same time, it will severely damage access to justice for all, a fundamental principle for any fair society. A two-tier justice system will be created.

We need to ensure we fight these proposals and make them known to the public. Please also sign this petition. I am not a great fan of petitions for their own sake, but this petition is to ensure Parliament gets to debate these reforms. As things stand, Grayling is trying to push them through with secondary legislation, and Parliament will not get a chance to scrutinise the proposals that will bring the legal aid component of the criminal justice system to its knees.