What price justice?

INNOCENT people are pleading guilty to, or being wrongly convicted of, offences because changes to legal aid rules mean they cannot afford a lawyer, Huntingdonshire solicitors believe. Next week, one of only four firms in the district providing criminal l

INNOCENT people are pleading guilty to, or being wrongly convicted of, offences because changes to legal aid rules mean they cannot afford a lawyer, Huntingdonshire solicitors believe.

Next week, one of only four firms in the district providing criminal legal aid is pulling out ahead of payment changes that it says will have them working for less than £13 an hour.

The lawyers' complaints follow a bid by the Legal Services Commission (LSC), which administers legal aid in civil and criminal cases to reduce the cost.

As well as changing the means-testing rules, the LSC has given firms until the end of March to sign up to new contracts the lawyers say allow the commission to change the rules unilaterally at seven weeks' notice and introduce block payments for lawyers representing suspects at police stations and in court.

The Law Society, which represents solicitors, has asked the commission to delay implementation of the changes, and is threatening to seek judicial review.

The commission has countered by saying the new contracts apply only to civil legal aid and, therefore, not a mechanism for implementing changes in criminal legal aid during 2007/08.

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But David Potter, senior partner at Potter Shelley and Company, in Huntingdon High Street, believes the commission intends to introduce block rates for criminal work in October.

By Easter, his company, Copleys, in Huntingdon and St Ives, and Wilkinson and Butler, in St Neots, will be the only solicitors in the district providing criminal legal aid. Serjeant and Son, which has been established in Ramsey for 200 years, is giving up on March 31 in protest.

Senior partner John Chrisp said the payment was to be £181 for travelling to a police station and spending up to 14 hours with a client. "If you have one case, such as murder, you get £12.92 an hour. How many plumbers would come out for that? My hourly rate for civil work is £165."

Mr Chrisp said people on average incomes were now outside the legal aid system and would be denied representation because solicitors would insist on fees up front.

"In the 14 years I have been doing this the legal aid rate has stayed the same. I do it only because I like it."

Defendants whose annual income is below £12,007 automatically get free legal aid. Above £21,487 they cannot. Between those figures, after deduction of specified living expenses, their disposable income must be below £3,270 a year to qualify. But lawyers say this discriminates against many defendants who cannot afford to pay their solicitors' normal fees. "Many have heavy commitments that the LSC does not allow for," Mr Potter said.

He points out that young lawyers will have nothing to do with criminal legal aid because the rewards are so poor. At 38, he is the youngest in the district. Several of the others, including Mr Chrisp, are over 60.

"People are being remanded in custody because they can't get a solicitor. Some are pleading guilty when they shouldn't. Others are being convicted when they have a defence but haven't had proper legal advice or representation," Mr Potter said. "There's a risk it will all fall apart and the Crown Prosecution Service will be allowed to impose justice."

Some defendants are now opting for more expensive Crown Court hearings because legal aid is not means-tested in the higher court.

All defending solicitors are stung by the assumption that their role is to get guilty people off at taxpayers' expense.

"The defence solicitor is the only independent professional who represents the individual citizen when the state brings criminal proceedings, and assists in the efficient administration of the criminal justice system," said Clive Dawson, from St Neots-based Wilkinson and Butler.

"If a member of the public has committed a criminal offence, it is only right that he is convicted of the right level of offence, not one that is more serious than the facts justify. The solicitor also assists the court in assessing the appropriate penalty."

But he warned: "Firms of solicitors cannot afford to continue subsidising the public sector element of their work. If solicitors were highly paid for criminal legal aid, there would be more wishing to undertake this work, not fewer."

Mr Potter fears Britain is at risk of falling into the US system where poor defendants are represented by young lawyers doing free work for the experience.

Copleys' Mike Trippitt said: "The fewer suppliers there are (of criminal legal aid) the more risk there is that people will not have the access to justice that they should have."

He said the Government had created many new offences in recent years and had streamlined the rules for administration of justice.

"If more truly guilty people are being brought to justice, there must be a proper budget available to see they are properly represented. It's a mark of democracy. The court has to be given the best opportunity of getting the right result."

His colleague, St Ives-based Graham Brook, said the company would also be taking a pay cut for civil legal aid, getting no more for three hours' legal aid work than for an hour's billed advice to a private client.

"The erosion of access has been gradual, but nonetheless real," he told The Hunts Post. "Many people who own their own homes are knocked out on grounds of capital. The legal aid base is very fragile."

But others in the criminal justice system say the pain is being shared across the board. Court staff have been working to rule for months in protest at the inadequacy of their pay rise and there have been cuts in the CPS and Probation service.

They point out free legal advice is available in police stations irrespective of a suspect's income.

Richard Crowley, chairman of Cambridgeshire Criminal Justice Board, said: "The criminal justice system is facing enormous financial pressure across the board, and budget cuts are being made for prosecutors, courts, police, probation and all publicly-funded agencies.

"Legal aid is a publicly-funded service and it would be unrealistic to believe it can continue without reform to ensure it's used more realistically.