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Legal aid cuts could lead to ‘advice deserts’ in mid Cheshire
A GROUP of specialist criminal lawyers have called for a full parliamentary debate on what they consider to be ‘unsuitable’ cuts to criminal legal aid.
In an unprecedented alliance, the criminal bar and criminal solicitors have come together to say ‘no more’ to the Ministry of Justice’s proposals to change the way legal aid is granted in criminal cases.
Legal aid has already been removed for most purposes in civil and matrimonial matters, with Justice Secretary Chris Grayling now reportedly turning his attention to criminal legal aid.
The joint statement from Criminal Law Solicitors Association, Criminal Bar Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group says they are ‘collectively dismayed’ that the MOJ has ‘ignored’ the 16,000 responses to its consultation paper, Transforming Legal Aid, which called upon the government to change the course of its proposed programme for cuts to criminal defence.
Chris Johnson, director and crime supervisor of Northwich and Winsford-based mosshaselhurst Solicitors said Mr Grayling’s policies have already led to ‘advice deserts’ in many areas, and fears they will now lead to such ‘deserts’ in mid Cheshire.
He said: “Well over 1,000 firms of solicitors who do criminal legal aid are likely to close if he has his way, with the loss of thousands of jobs all over the country.
“We have been subject to reduced income year on year for the last 11 years, and the proposals are to reduce our fees by a further 17.5 per cent over the next two years, at a time when all overheads keep rising and average profits on the work are considerably less than that sum.
“He is therefore in danger of closing down the small firms in the towns and villages of Cheshire who still attempt to provide a full service.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "We have one of the best legal professions in the world but, at a time when everyone has to tighten their belts, we have to find efficiencies.
"At around £2 billion a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, and have no choice but to make the savings already outlined. We listened closely to the original consultation responses and brought forward proposals on criminal advocacy fees that built on comments from the Bar Council and bar circuit leaders, among others.
"We want to engage constructively with stakeholders. We worked intensively with The Law Society to reach agreement on revised proposals for criminal litigation contracts. We are still consulting on advocacy fee proposals and continue to encourage views.’
LAW firms across the region are already making plans to combat the difficulties brought about by cuts to legal aid, with Northwich law firm Susan Howarth and Co, being just one of them.
Cheshire Family Law – a subsidiary of Susan Howarth and Co – has introduced a DIY divorce service for people who have received divorce papers or want to divorce their spouse but are not in a position to pay privately for a solicitor to help them out.
During hour-long workshops, held at Susan Howarth and Co’s Chesterway offices, attendees will learn how to fill out all of the forms necessary for completing the divorce process.
Susan Howarth said: “Cheshire Family Law already offers a mean-tested fixed-price divorce service, which is available to people who would previously have been eligible to legal aid, which is no longer available in the majority of straightforward divorce cases.
“As a firm with a proud record of helping vulnerable people, we realised that the fixed-price service wasn’t going far enough in providing access to justice to all.
“The DIY divorce workshop initiative means that we can continue to offer exceptional service to all clients, regardless of how much they can afford to pay.”
For more information about the DIY divorce workshops, call Sarah Curbishley on 01606 818946.
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