Solicitors walk out in row over legal aid cuts plan

Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London
Barristers and solicitors outside Southwark Crown Court, London

SOLICITORS from Wigan walked out of court in a row over proposed changes to legal aid which they say will damage the legal profession.

Staff from Wigan and Leigh Magistrates’ Court joined colleagues from across the country in half a day of industrial action yesterday.

The borough’s lawyers claim plans by the Government to radically cut the legal aid bill will leave people unable to meet large legal bills, while some of Wigan’s longest-standing law firms could be forced to close or lay off staff.

The cost-saving proposals include slashing the number of firms eligible for legal aid contracts, which could leave the entire region being served by a limited number of lawyers and people potentially being represented in court by solicitors they have never met.

Solicitors’ fees are also set to be cut by up to 30 per cent under plans announced by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) which Wigan solicitors are urging the Government to rethink.

Andrew Stock, solicitor at Wigan firm Stock, Moran and Swalwell, said: “The outcome of the proposals will be that unless you have money you won’t be able to get a decent defence.

“The level they will set fees at will make it very difficult for any firm doing the job properly to make any kind of living.

“The firms currently in Wigan are unlikely to be able to continue, certainly in their current guise, and things are pointing towards factory firms firing people through the system quickly with no high-quality work being conducted.

“It is possible people from Wigan will be represented by a firm based in Stockport, which will leave the majority of people with no opportunity to spend time with their lawyer before or during their case.

“People have this perception that lawyers all earn a fortune, but that is certainly not the case for the majority of us who do legal aid work.”

The proposals also include a residence test which will disqualify anyone who cannot prove they are living legally in the UK from legal aid, which has caused widespread concern over how vulnerable people such as human trafficking victims or those who have been tortured will obtain justice.

Barristers and solicitors withdrew their labour from criminal proceedings across the UK yesterday morning, with the protests extending as far as the highest court in the land, the Old Bailey in London.

The plans are set to save up to £220m a year, with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling saying the current system is inefficient and the reforms will still give people generous aid.