WIGAN lawyers fear the Government’s proposed changes to criminal legal aid would not only severely impact on their clients but also cost jobs.
Under cost-saving proposals, the number of law firms eligible for legal aid contracts will be slashed – creating the likelihood that some defendants will end up being represented by solicitors they have never met.
Meanwhile, solicitors fees, which have effectively been frozen in recent years, are set to be cut by 20 per cent.
Lawyers at the Wigan offices of Widdows Mason and Co and Stephensons both slammed the Government’s plans.
Gary Jackson, a partner at Widdows Mason, said: “As the proposals stand there will only be 38 legal aid contracts across the whole of Greater Manchester. Firms that are awarded contracts will then be expected to service the entire region.
“Clients in Wigan might have to work with a solicitor from Stockport, and vice-versa. There are very few law firms that could do that effectively.
“Widdows Mason would not be under threat as a result of these proposals, but even a firm of our size would struggle. If we were to lose criminal legal aid, 10 to 12 people across the firm would probably have to lose their jobs.”
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has launched a consultation aimed at cutting £220m from the criminal legal aid bill.
As well as stopping defendants with a disposable income of more than £37,500 from automatically receiving legal aid and curbing prisoners’ right to legal aid, the plans also pave the way for lawyers to compete for legal aid contracts.
There are currently more than 1,600 organisations providing legally aided services across the UK - but the Government want to cut that to just 400.
Under the proposals, tendering for contracts would be opened this autumn and the first contracts would be in place in autumn 2014.
In response, an online signature has already been signed by nearly 50,000 people and a group of Labour MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion to debate the issue.
Martin Jones, of Stephensons, said: “There’s a view of solicitors that we’re all ‘fat cats’ but that is simply not true. Firms who fulfil legal aid work do not operate on big profit margins and it’s tough to imagine jobs remaining secure.
“If these measures are introduced, defendants will be deprived of the ability to choose a local or specialist solicitor. They will instead be allocated a solicitor who could hail from anywhere in Greater Manchester and have no local knowledge.
“I’ve never seen such unity in our profession as I have in opposition to these proposals. This is being totally and utterly driven by money.”