Chesterfield magistrates’ court has been facing disruption and long delays today, Friday, July 17, as defence solicitors from across the region boycotted cases requiring legal aid in protest against Government austerity cuts.
The Government cut financial legal aid support by 8.75per cent last year for legal firms and another 8.75per cent from July 1 this year, and they are planning to slash funding by a further 27per cent on average from next year.
Legal firms from across the country including north Derbyshire have raised concerns that without Government support more people will be forced to defend themselves in court without full legal advice.
Some defence solicitors from firms across Derbyshire, including Elliot Mather and Johnsons Partnership, took action today, Friday, July 17, by not attending Chesterfield magistrates’ court forcing many defendants to defend themselves and make decisions without the advice of a solicitor.
Subsequently, district Judge Andrew Davison was forced to outline the legal processes to defendants and magistrates in another court had to adjourn for a long period to allow the court’s duty solicitor to see defendants insisting on legal advice and representation.
Currently anyone living in a household earning less than £22,000 has a right to legal aid support so they can be represented in court by a lawyer paid for by Government funding.
But now firms across the country say the system is no longer sustainable with the cuts and many have been forced to withdraw their legal aid services after the latest cuts were introduced.
As a result people who cannot afford a solicitor are being forced to defend themselves in front of magistrates without any legal knowledge.
Simon King, a partner at Elliot Mather solicitors in Mansfield, fears there could be an increase in the miscarriages of justice and innocent people could be convicted because they are not getting legal representation.
The Government has set a target to cut its legal aid bill by around £2.2bn.
Subsequently, many firms have already boycotted legal aid cases because they are concerned the changes could put them out of business and some lawyers are turning their backs on criminal law and pursuing other areas of legal practice.
Founding partner Digby Johnson, of the Johnsons Partnership said: “The changes to legal aid mean we have got juveniles appearing in court unrepresented. We have got people normally on bail locked up because they are not able to submit a bail application. Others can’t be sentenced because they are unrepresented.
“For every £1 in March last year we’re now getting 82-and-a-half pence and the last pay rise for many solicitors was in 1996.
“We are now at a point where the Government accepts that as far as doctors are concerned there is a shortfall of about 5,000 and they looking at paying them more even though a newly qualified GP is paid three times more than a newly qualified defence solicitor but the defence solicitor is expected to work through the night and at weekends.
“The new changes are also on top of 23per cent cuts in 2012 in our crown court fees.
“Wrong advice and misunderstandings on the part of defendants could easily lead to miscarriages of justices. The consequences of cutting legal aid could be massively, far-reaching.
“Witnesses could be forced through the ordeal of having to attend court cases that should not go to trial and there will long delays in legal hearings and processes.
“We would like to reverse the cuts to legal aid and get an independent review of fees and working practices.”
The Government has argued changes are necessary to remain efficient and to keep legal aid sustainable.