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Friday, 6 September 2013

Progress on Legal Aid - but much to do!

One issue which dominated legal news over the summer was the future of Criminal Legal Aid. This was caused by the Government’s controversial plans to restrict a Defendant’s right to choose his own lawyer and to sell off legal aid contracts to the highest bidder.

This led to one of the most committed campaigns by lawyers that I have ever known  -

The Ministry of Justice had no convincing argument against the campaign and at one time resorted to briefing its friends in the press about so called fat cat lawyers. But this was an issue that would not go away. Lawyers, many of whomwho had no dealings with criminal work, were fully behind the campaign for one simple reason – it was wrong. It was attack on the fundamental rights of those accused by the state to be represented by the lawyer of their choice.

Minister Chris Grayling has now confirmed that these particular plans are to be scrapped and that there will be further consultation on Legal Aid  

This is certainly good news and we should be grateful to those lawyers who have kept up the relentless pressure on a Government that has finally had to take notice.

That is not to say that the problem has gone away. A number of highly damaging moves will not be changed. One major worry is the proposed introduction of means testing for Defendants in Criminal Cases. Anyone with disposal income over £37,500 a year and with £3,000 a month left after bills will not be eligible. This is not a question of the very wealthy getting legal aid. This means that any hard-working person with a reasonable income who is charged with an offence, whether rightly or wrongly, will have to go into debt to defend themselves. And we have seen again this week that terrible miscarriages of justice do occur –

The state has virtually unlimited resources to prosecute citizens. Those who are accused should have equal access to the resources to defend themselves. If a person is convicted they can be made to pay towards the legal aid costs but removal of legal aid is again tipping the balancer in favour of the state.  

So there has been progress for which we should all be grateful. But there is still much to do.

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