UK Government backs down on legal aid reform plans
THE Government has backed down on plans to reform legal aid - but there are worries their proposals will still cause problems.
Earlier this year Justice Minister Chris Grayling, had proposed reducing the number of law firms able to offer legal aid.
Solicitors said the plans would result in independent firms going out of business and being replaced by national firms. They said it would also leave defendants unable to choose their own legal representative.
Swansea solicitors feared it would limit client choice and locally would mean those who wanted to operate or give their instructions in the Welsh language would be unable to do so.
There is a sense of relief but also apprehension from local solicitors as they digest the new proposals, which they have been given six weeks to respond to.
All those who currently provide criminal legal aid work will continue to do so as long as they meet quality requirements, but the way duty solicitor shifts are organised will change.
The original plans were intended to save £220 million and under the revised proposals, some of the cost-saving measures will remain.
There will be 17.5 per cent cut in fees by 2015 and barristers and solicitors in the most serious criminal case will have their fees cut by 30 per cent.
Defendants with an annual household disposable income of £37,500 and more than £3,000 left in the bank each month will no longer be eligible nor will 11,000 prisoners who currently receive legal aid.
Mr Grayling said: “These proposals mean that all those accused of a crime would receive quality legal representation; that defendants are free to choose their lawyer, whether they want a big firm, their local high street solicitor or a particular specialist; that all those who currently provide criminal legal aid services can continue to do so, provided they meet minimum quality standards”.
Gareth Jones, director of Gomer Williams, based in Llanelli, said: “The consensus is that 17.5 per cent is a large cut, especially where margins are already very small.”
He said it was a “very good thing” that the originally plans had been abolished. but said the drastic cut in fees did worry solicitors.
“It is far better reading than the last consultation but we will wait to see how far it goes,” he said.
But as a Welsh-language lawyer, he said it was also good news for those who wanted to deal in Welsh.
He said: “Client choice remains which is very important, especially given the rural area of Dyfed-Powys. At least the consultation recognises the important fact that this area is very different from urban areas and recognises the right of individuals to have their advice through the medium of Welsh.”