Proposed budget cuts to the legal-aid program will have negative repercussions to both the legal profession and those who utilise it. Garden Court Barrister, Michael Turner QC, spoke before the House of Commons on Tuesday, 11 June to address the issue of legal aid. The panel also included Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President of the Justice Select Committee, Bill Waddington, Chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and Maura McGowan QC, Chair of the Bar Council. This panel spent over two hours on Tuesday relaying their grievances with the Ministry of Justice’s proposed plan to cut the budget and restructure the way in which legal representatives are allocated throughout the legal system.
The Panel spent a significant amount of time voicing alternatives for meeting the MOJ’s budget cut of £220 million. Turner opened with suggestions for meeting this monetary goal by fixing three problems within the system that consistently cost the Court and taxpayer’s money. The first suggestion from Turner was to fix the inefficiencies of the court system. Turner cited examples of small court missteps which ultimately cost the Courts thousands of pounds, such as failure of the Courts to ensure necessary provisions like translators. Turner also suggested removing the operation of the Magistrates Court from the jurisdiction of the MOJ as a way to better secure efficiency within the courts. Finally, Turner advocated the banks be required to hold fraud insurance in order to protect taxpayers and the government from being burdened financially with these cases which are currently not payed for by the banks. These small changes within the system could potentially save the legal-aid budget about £100 million. Turner advocates these changes would be much more constructive in the long run rather than the proposed cut of 17.5% across the board.
The panel vehemently rejected the provision in the legislation to instate a system of Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) which would allow large firms to bid for legal defence contracts with the government. Turner argued this system would pollute the adversarial system by failing to attract talented legal defence professionals and completely eliminating the client’s right to choose their counsel as well as eliminate the independent judiciary, an essential element in the legal system. The 17.5% cut to legal-aid would fail to attract potentially talented defence councilors due to a cut in wages, which in the case of junior barristers, would fall to under £14 a day under the proposed PCT system, according to Turner. Conversely, the MOJ criminal contracts with large firms would threaten the independence of the judicial system. These contracts would monopolise defence councilor industry and eventually eliminate the smaller firms, putting the defence firms in the pockets of the government who pay their contract. Finally, Turner addressed the topic of client choice. Turner states with certainty that this systematic change would effectively eliminate client choice. “The exceptionality clause within the consultation is only where there is a conflict for the solicitor or the solicitor is embarrassed. So it’s not a matter of choice for a client who says ‘Actually I don’t think my solicitor is up to it or doesn’t know this area, can I have another one?’ The answer is no.” These consequences are unavoidable in a system that stresses convenience and profit over a client’s well being.
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