‘Devastating blow’ may send law firms out of business

John Halewood Dodd.
John Halewood Dodd.

Last week, I explained that I had been rebuked by some who complained that this column was boring when the topic had a legal theme to it so I suggested that I would endeavour to avoid such themes in an attempt to come across as amusing.

Unfortunately, I cannot maintain that stance as there have been two developments in the last week that it would be remiss of me not to mention.

Firstly, there was an extremely important decision in the long running saga in respect of criminal legal aid.

The government are intent on imposing a system where the number of firms able to provide duty solicitors is to be reduced dramatically. The process had been challenged in the courts, but the Court of Appeal ruled that the Government’s approach is reasonable, and will therefore proceed.

The president of the National Law Society described this as ‘a devastating blow’ to the hundreds of law firms that it is now predicted will go out of business.

Also of great significance to those of us who practice criminal law was the government decision, in the last days of parliament, to impose new court costs which come into effect on the April 13. Apparently, there is no discretion as to whether these court costs should be imposed. They are not means tested and apply to the most minor of offences as well as more serious matters. The amounts are fixed and are not insignificant.

Pleading guilty to an offence of shoplifting would, as of April 13, have court costs of £180 with prosecution costs of £85 and a minimum victim surcharge of £15. That’s £280 before we even consider any compensation to the shop and some form of penalty for the offence itself.

This is absolutely ludicrous, especially when you consider that the vast majority of offences of an acquisitive nature are committed because those committing them have insufficient funds, for whatever reason, to pay for the items stolen.

Furthermore, the courts are currently unable to collect fines let alone additional costs. It is estimated that there is almost £2 billion in unpaid fines at present, so this decision seems even more questionable.