‘Price trumps all’: Barristers condemn legal aid cuts

Fresh legal aid reforms are setting up a "fundamentally flawed" system where "price trumps all", barristers have warned.

The Bar Council's response to new proposals from the Ministry of Justice attacked the "breathtakingly convoluted" attempt to achieve £220 million of savings and warned the "lowest possible quality of service" would be encouraged.

Among the changes are moves to make legal aid providers compete for contracts on price in a standardised tendering procedure.

Specialist law firms will "disappear off the face of the land", retired judge Sir Anthony Hooper told the Today programme, leaving vulnerable defendants left with a government-allocated solicitor.

"There is no avoiding the simple fact that these proposals would move us from having a justice system which is admired all over the world, to a system where price trumps all," Bar Council chairman Maura McGowan said.

"Price competitive tendering may look as though it achieves short-term savings, but it is a blunt instrument that will leave deep scars on our justice system for far longer. Further cuts to the scope of civil legal aid will limit access to justice for some of the most vulnerable. That is a legacy of which no government should be proud."

The Bar Council accused the MoJ of failing to provide a proper equality impact assessment. It suggested this would make it harder for some of the most vulnerable, deprived, and socially excluded groups to get access to justice and warned this would have a "pernicious consequence in undermining social cohesion".

"Robust independent and professional lawyers are the main safeguard against the conviction of those innocent of the charges they face," Hooper added.

The government's consultation on the changes, which closes today, outlines reforms to prison law preventing legal aid "for matters that do not justify the use of public funds".

Those seeking treatment would not be eligible. A household disposable income threshold would be set at roughly £100,000, preventing the well-off from receiving assistance.

Claimants would be subject to a residence test. "Weak judicial reviews" would also become harder, while all cases assessed as having a less than 50% chance of success would no longer receive funding.

Justice secretary Chris Grayling said: "At a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the government's commitment to getting better value for taxpayers' money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.

"We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid. These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer, and will not in any way affect someone's right to a fair trial."