Solicitors have failed to prevent the Ministry of Justice from imposing deep cuts in the number of contracts for lawyers attending magistrates courts and police stations in England and Wales.
The high court has upheld as “proportionate” proposals by the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, to reduce the contracts from 1,600 to 527.
The Law Society, which represents solicitors in England and Wales, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association had argued that the cuts would lead to lawyers losing their jobs, defendants being deprived of adequate representation and an increase in miscarriages of justice.
In their judgment, Lord Justice Laws and Mrs Justice Cranston declared: “It is accepted on all hands that consolidation in the legal market is needed if legal aid is to be provided at reduced fees. It may properly be concluded that this is a proper way to achieve it.”
Lawyers for the MoJ had told the court that the market for criminal legal aid services was “ inefficient and unsustainable in its current form” and that there were “too many providers chasing too little work”.
They warned that to accommodate 17.5% fee savings, market restructuring had to take place, which would inevitably mean some firms closing while others became larger in order to benefit from economies of scale.
The Law Society said it would seek leave to appeal against the decision. The society’s president, Andrew Caplen, said: “We are very concerned at the government’s proposals and their potential effect upon access to justice, together with the effect upon the large number of our members who have dedicated their professional lives to assisting clients in this so-important area of law.”
The president of the LCCSA, Jon Black, said: “These cuts to on-call contracts are dangerously risky for maintaining a fair defence for anyone and everyone accused of a crime. At worst legal deserts will appear in parts of the country where there simply aren’t any properly qualified solicitors left to do emergency work in magistrates’ courts and police stations.”
Bill Waddington, chair of the CLSA, said: “Our battle will continue and we have every confidence in future success. Our legal team have said there are strong grounds for an appeal and both associations and the Law Society will be applying for leave to do so without delay.”
Labour’s shadow justice minister, Andy Slaughter MP, said: “With their cuts to legal aid, curtailing of judicial review and plans to water down protection for people’s basic rights, our justice system is fast becoming the preserve of the rich under David Cameron’s government … Only Labour has committed to put the government’s shoddy two-tier contract out of its misery.”
A MoJ spokesperson said: “Given the financial crisis inherited by this Government, we have no choice but to find savings in everything we do. This must include legal aid, which was one of the most expensive systems in the world. Our reforms are designed to ensure the system is fair for those who need it, the lawyers who provide it, as well as the taxpayers who ultimately pay for it. Anyone suspected of a crime will still have access to a legal aid lawyer of their choosing, just as they do now. We welcome this judgment.”