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Legal aid cuts will leave “deep scars” on justice system

A retired senior judge thinks reforms to the legal aid system will prevent people from being able to choose their own solicitor.

Sir Anthony Hooper hit out at government plans to cut £220m from the annual criminal case legal aid budget in England and Wales saying it would have a major impact on people who needed lawyers with specialist expertise.

In April, the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act also removed legal aid from many areas of civil law.

Under the proposals there would be fewer organisations providing legal aid work. They would compete for contracts on price, with companies such as logistics firm the Stobart Group bidding for work.

Sir Anthony, who retired as a Court of Appeal judge last year, identified what he described as two fundamental defects resulting from price competitive tendering (PCT).

One was the elimination of the long-held right of a defendant to choose a legal aid solicitor. Those arrested will be assigned a lawyer from a firm winning a contract.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme people with a disability would not be able to choose a lawyer who understood their condition, and those involved in complex cases would not be able to seek out specialists.

“If I’m arrested in Norwich on a complex fraud case, for example, I would be able under the present system to find maybe a solicitors in London or Manchester, or wherever it may be, who specialise in difficult fraud cases,” he said.

“Not now. Someone will turn up at the door and say ‘I’m representing you. And by the way, I’m employed by the following company’.”

Meanwhile, the Bar Council has given a 150-page response to a Ministry of Justice consultation on the issue.

The council was particularly critical of PCT being proposed by ministers as they seek to cut costs.

Maura McGowan QC, chairwoman of the Bar Council, said: “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.

“PCT 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.”

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