Criminal defence solicitors in Lancaster have joined others across the country in a protest against cuts to legal aid.
Solicitors’ fees in England and Wales were reduced by 8.75 per cent from July 1 after they were cut by the same percentage in 2014.
The government is bringing in cuts to reduce the £1.7bn bill for legal aid, which helps people who cannot afford the costs of legal advice.
John Halewood-Dodd, managing director of Lancaster based LHD Law, and a practising solicitor, said that the system was a “shambles” as more and more services are being moved away from Lancaster: “This is a national issue and lawyers in Lancaster are determined to stand up and be counted.
“By July 1 the government will have cut the fees payable to solicitors dealing with legal aid cases by 17.5 per cent over the last 15 months.
“Further cuts of up to 50 per cent will come into force in January 2016.
“No business can sustain that level of reduction in their income and many firms will undoubtedly go to the wall.
“Michael Gove, the Minister in charge of courts, accepts there is now a two tier system of justice.
“Gold standard for the rich and substandard for the rest.
We believe that all those accused of a crime should be entitled to advice and assistance regardless of their means. Lawyers throughout the country are saying that they are unwilling to deal with cases at these reduced levels of pay.
In order to protect the vulnerable the national protocol would leave clients, both at court and the police station, represented by the duty solicitor alone.
To illustrate how precarious the legal profession is there were 13 firms practicing defence work in Lancaster and Morecambe when I began my career over 20 years ago. There are now just three.
“If we don’t do something to combat that there are unlikely to be any.
“It’s a shambles because of under-funding.”
Richard Monkhouse, National Chairman of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “Our members have voiced their concerns about the impact of legal aid changes on the administration of justice, and we will continue to make our views known to decision-makers in government. During the period of the strike, and beyond, our members remain focused on ensuring victims and defendants have the fairest possible proceedings in court.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Justice said the Legal Aid Agency had plans in place to ensure the criminal justice system would operate effectively despite the protests.
He added the cuts would be “challenging” but were “designed to ensure... a system of criminal legal aid that delivers value for money to taxpayers”.
An independent review of the new arrangements would be started in July 2016, the spokesman said.