UK

Legal Aid Cuts Will Leave Wrongly Accused Under Pressure To Plead Guilty To Save Costs, Lawyer Warns

20/05/2013 15:20 BST | Updated 20/05/2013 18:24 BST

Legal aid is being slashed "at random" by the Ministry of Justice, leaving a system where the wrongly accused can be represented by a "pig in a poke" desperate for clients to plead guilty, a leading human rights barrister has said.

Writing for the Huffington Post UK, Francis Fitzgibbon QC warned that any ordinary, law-abiding person could find themselves without access to justice.

"It’s not about murderers, paedophiles, rapists, and fat-cat lawyers. It’s about any of us who may get into trouble," he said.

His comments come as lawyers are set to protest on Tuesday over the proposals to shred the budget for legal aid, the day the Ministry of Justice will discuss the issue.

More than 200 plan to demonstrate in Manchester, according to the Manchester Evening Post.

christopher jefferies

Christopher Jefferies, wrongly accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates, has decried plans for cuts to legal aid

The Law Society has harshly condemned the plans for budget cuts, and are backed by victims and their families including the parents of murdered teenager Milly Dowler, who wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron in 2011, urging him not to "go down in history as the prime minister who took rights away from ordinary people."

Christopher Jefferies, the man wrongly accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010 has also said he is "dismayed" at the plans to cut legal aid, saying it was denying people access to justice.

A petition on the UK government's website has more than 47,000 signatures, urging ministers to reconsider.

Proposals from the government mean £220m cut from the legal aid bill a year by 2018, and firms allowed to carry out legal aid work slashed by 75 per cent.

Fitzgibbon said there was a wide range of examples of how people could be falsely accused of a crime. "You have been mistakenly identified from CCTV footage; a student has falsely accused you of molesting her; you have been charged with assault while defending yourself from a drunk; the other driver in a motor accident maliciously reports you to the police; your child has been charged with a public order offence at a demonstration.

"You need a lawyer to advise you, but can’t afford one. Most criminal lawyers do the job as a vocation, because they believe in it, not to become millionaires."

The budget is to be slashed by £220m, a "figure picked at random", Fitzgibbon, a witness to the Leveson Inquiry, alleged.

Lawyers must then "achieve a massive turnover to break even", Fitzgibbon argued, and "will be under huge pressure to tell you to plead guilty, because preparing a trial will destroy their profit. They won’t be able to pay senior, experienced staff. You will get a pig in a poke."

The proposed changes, the budget cuts to legal aid, do not need to be approved by parliament and can be "abolished with the stroke of a pen" by Grayling, Fitzgibbon said.

Changes to legal aid are currently under consultation by the MoJ, due to finish on June 4.

A Ministry of Justice spokesperson told The Huffington Post UK: "We will continue to uphold everyone's right to a fair trial. Quality assured lawyers will still be available, just as they are now. Contracts will not be awarded to lawyers who do not pass set quality standards.

"With one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world - £1 billion 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.”