The Legal Aid Crisis

September 1, 2016

It is a well-known and established fact that severe legal aid cuts, and changes to the structure of payments in the larger cases, have led to a crisis amongst the better Criminal Legal Aid suppliers – those trying to provide a quality service but not receiving appropriate remuneration.

After many years without any rate increase at all, the entire system of payment for Crown Court work was transformed by the introduction of Fixed Fees in April 2013- which now account for almost every single case from theft to murder.

Prior to this, the work done was remunerated on an hourly basis, subject to taxation- which on the face of it was a fair system. However, the Legal Aid Board wanted greater control over costs which were increasing due to the complexity of cases and the service of much more evidence by the CPS and as a result the fixed fee system was introduced.

An Unfair System for All?

In my view, it is a truly awful scheme failing to reward necessary hard work and instead rewarding firms who do little work on the case and simply send it to a barrister and let him/her get on with it. This is because payment is based on the amount of evidence served by the CPS (page count) with different multipliers for the seriousness of the case.

EXAMPLE:

Firm A and B act for 2 Co-defendants in the same matter. Firm A work diligently seeing their client numerous times, seeing witnesses and looking through evidence that is “unused” – which means it does not form part of the CPS case.

Meanwhile, Firm B does virtually nothing- seeing their client once and passing it on to their counsel. Both firms will receive exactly the same payment. How can any system operate like this effectively punishing the quality firm and rewarding the shoddy one?

This system has kept firms who are not fit for purpose in the marketplace earning money for doing very little badly. There are also huge differences in the Fixed Fee payment between a trial that goes on to take place and one which cracks (ie where the CPS drop or lower the charge and the client pleads guilty).

In the more substantial cases with large amounts of evidence, the difference between a Trial fee and a Cracked Trial fee can be up to £40,000. This makes it impossible for the firm to plan for future billing, and even more significantly, provides a perverse incentive to actually have a full trial!

 Choosing a Quality Law Firm

Quality firms, like Tuckers Solicitors, take a very proactive role in the trial procedure and sometimes manage to persuade the CPS to drop or lower the charge. The firm that does that then stands to lose a substantial amount of money whereas the low-quality firms who do little work will have their case proceeding to trial and will not only make much more money from the case but will cost the State more money as well.

Until this ridiculous system is changed my advice would be to retain your solicitors and counsel on a private basis. Sometimes the remuneration on Crown Court cases is so poor that not even the best firm are able to spend as much time on the file as is necessary. Sadly, people who can afford to instruct their lawyers privately inevitably receive a better service, however, Competitive Fixed Fees can be offered to private clients. They can have counsel of their choice at an agreed price, whereas legal aid rates for advocacy are also often so poor that it can be very difficult to instruct the counsel of your choice.

All in all, if your liberty or your good character mean a lot to you and you are able to afford private fees then I would strongly urge you to pay privately. Of course this is exactly what the Government wants, so much so that they have now changed the law so that if you are a private payer and you are acquitted, you can only claim your costs back IF you have applied for legal aid and been rejected AND your costs are only paid back at legal aid rates which would be much less than the private fees you have already paid.

Contact Tuckers Solicitors Expert Team

Our offices are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, ready to deliver immediate and expert legal advice and representation. For more information, please e-mail suttons@tuckerssolicitors.com, or contract Stuart Sutton on 07715-005953 or 07798-753720