big firms’ group statement in response to moj cuts proposals

In response to the latest consultation with regards cuts to the LGFS and Court Appointed fees, the Big Firms’ Group calls on the Lord Chancellor to meet with all relevant stakeholders to better understand the issues regarding the sustainability of the criminal justice system before imposing further cuts on the criminal defence sector.

To impose further cuts on the LGFS without regard to the wider ramifications is obtuse. We believe the amount spent on criminal legal aid has already fallen further and faster than the amount that the MoJ was targeting in the original Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps consultation of September 2013. Based on the research by Oxford Economics, commissioned by the Law Society, there is every reason to believe that it will continue to do so – without the need for further cuts.

The Ministry of Justice needs to quickly abandon the false premise that the criminal justice system is sustainable on its current course. It is not.

The CPS has already admitted to House of Commons committee that it often struggles to get cover for cases because of a shortage of criminal lawyers. It is struggling to recruit lawyers, despite drawing from the criminal defence community – and offering much more generous terms of employment. The exodus from the junior Bar is well documented by the Criminal Bar Association. The shortage of criminal solicitors is now leading to wage inflation in the criminal defence sector. A perfect storm; as volumes of work continue to decrease, the effects of previous cuts continue to feed through the system, business costs increase year on year and firms incur the costs of making the transition to a fully digital criminal justice system. On the other hand, in the last fortnight, the MoJ has found money to fund rises in pay in the prison service and the judiciary to avert the pending crises in those areas of its responsibility.

This latest proposal from the MoJ is targeted at a very small number of the overall cases – in a system in which many cases are already woefully underpaid and do not reflect the work that needs to be done. It flies in the face of the long standing rhetoric of the LAA, of solicitors having to accept a certain arbitrariness due to the “swings & roundabouts” nature of the fee structure. It ignores the wider perspectives of the already reducing spend on the criminal defence sector and the serious fissures manifesting themselves in the criminal justice system. It is dishonest in its focus on the rise in high value LGFS claims without acknowledging the corresponding savings in the VHCC spend.

It genuinely seems as if the MoJ is deliberately trying to find the straw that will break the back of this long suffering camel. It may have succeeded this time.

Note on the Big Firms’ Group: The Big Firms’ Group is an association of around 40 of the country’s largest criminal defence firms with representatives in nearly every procurement area in England & Wales.