Hundreds of lawyers’ jobs face the axe in West Yorkshire as a result of controversial legal aid reforms which could leave ordinary people trying to defend themselves in court, solicitors have warned.
Next Tuesday solicitors and barristers will mark the end of a Government consultation when they hold a minute’s silence outside the city’s Magistrates and Crown Courts.
The reforms – branded “mindboggingly ridiculous” by one leading lawyer – are intended to slice £220m from the £1.1bn criminal legal aid portion of the legal aid bill.
It will see the number of firms representing legal aid cases fall from 1,600 to around 400 nationally through a process of auction-style bidding for the work.
Lawyers say around 75 firms in West Yorkshire will be reduced to just 25, with jobs for solicitors cut to 300 from the current 500-600, and Leeds halving from 150 to 75. Barristers would also be “decimated”, according to Philip Goldberg, partner at Leeds-based Lester Morrill.
New research commissioned by six Circuit leaders, including Alistair MacDonald QC, leader of the North Eastern Circuit, found that four out of five people say they would be unable to pay the average cost of legal fees for a three-day trial, should they find themselves accused of a crime, and could be forced to represent themselves.
Mr MacDonald said those on modest incomes would be the losers because of a new cap on legal aid of £37,500.
He said: “Chris Grayling says these reforms are about cutting legal aid to the wealthiest individuals, but with a cap of £37,500 joint household disposable income, it will be hard-working families hit hardest.
“The losers from this bill will be law-abiding citizens on modest incomes who defend their homes against intruders, accidentally clip a cyclist in their cars, or who are simply among the many each year accused of crimes they haven’t committed.”
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “With one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world – £1bn a year is spent just on criminal legal aid — we can no longer avoid examining how to deliver better value for every penny of taxpayers’ money we spend.” A spokeswoman for Leeds-based Cousins-Tyrer said there would be more miscarriages of justice.