A divisive issue is cutting through the heart of the British justice system: proposed cuts to legal aid – the payment from public funds to help pay for legal advice or proceedings.
Last year the Government published proposals for streamlining the provision of legal aid in England and Wales in order to deliver savings of around £220 million a year.
Ministers say legal aid is costing the taxpayer too much and must be reformed; lawyers say the cuts are the most serious threat to the British legal system in hundreds of years.
What are the proposals?
Legal aid costs taxpayers about £2 billion every year, with half going on criminal defence and the rest on civil cases.
Proposals to cut that bill down to £220 million a year by 2018/19 (to be phased in from April this year) include:
- Cutting fees in long-running, complex and high-cost cases by 30%
- Make it harder for claimants to use civil legal aid to bring “speculative” cases by ensuring all cases must have at least a 50% chance of success to be funded
- Stopping criminal legal aid being given to prisoners unnecessarily by resolving some issues through the prisoner complaints system rather than the courts
- Introducing a threshold so that wealthy defendants – those with an annual household disposable income of £37,500 or more – are not automatically granted legal aid
- Bringing in a residency test so that only people with a “strong connection” to the UK can receive civil legal aid
The Ministry of Justice says cuts are necessary to ensure legal aid remains “sustainable”.
“I do recognise that a package of changes driven by harsh economic reality is tough, but I cannot change the financial reality I am dealing with,” said Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary.
“We have an excellent tradition of legal aid and one of the best legal professions in the world. But we cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is still costing too much. It is not free money, it is paid for by hard-working taxpayers, so we must ensure we get the very best value for every penny spent.”
Protests outside courts
But the proposed cuts are stridently opposed by many law bodies, including the Law Society, the Bar Council and the Treasury Counsel.
They are concerned that the reforms will remove legal aid from those who need it most and bring down lawyers’ fees – something which could deter new graduates from entering criminal defence.
Earlier this month, thousands of barristers and solicitors staged a half-day walkout in cities including London, Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle in order to force a rethink of the proposals – the first time in legal history they have taken such action.
Speaking outside Bristol Crown Court, barrister Ramin Pakrooh told the Guardian: “For the last six years, the government has slashed legal aid funding. It is about to do so again. In real terms, for barristers who do criminal legal aid work, that will amount to a 41% cut.”
This is a worrying development for many translators and interpreters working in the legal sector as the cuts could reduce demand for court interpreting and other translation services associated with legal proceedings.
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