Public fear for justice after legal aid cuts

Public fear for justice after legal aid cuts

A new survey has shown high levels of public fear over cuts to legal aid with many believing it will result in more innocent people being wrongly convicted.

The opinion poll, carried out by ComRes for the Bar Council, found that 70% of people questioned believed that the cuts would lead to more people being convicted of crimes they did not commit because they would not be able to afford legal assistance.

The survey has been carried out in the light of proposals, announced by justice secretary Chris Grayling, which will cut the annual criminal legal aid budget by £220 million. The plans will see criminal legal aid contracts awarded through competitive tendering, while judicial reviews will increase in price and lawyers’ fees will be cut.

The proposals have already been criticised in Parliament with 60 MPs signing an early day motion which condemns the loss of the defendant’s right to choose his solicitor. The motion also claims it will “reduce the quality of legal representation to the lowest standard possible”.

The survey found that 71% of people were worried that legal aid cuts would result in more people being convicted of crimes they did not commit because of having to use the cheapest defence lawyers available to them. A similar number also thought that legal aid was a price worth paying for living in a fair society, while three-quarters of respondents believed that the poorest would be most affected by the changes.

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the bar, said the poll showed that the public valued legal aid and is concerned about the proposals to reform it. She added that an independent legal profession at a high standard is essential to a fair and democratic society and the government, in seeking to make the changes, is out of touch with voters. Grayling, himself has defended the changes, saying he did not believe that most people who found themselves in the criminal justice system were “connoisseurs” of legal skills.