Devon lawyers fight legal aid changes
PUBLISHED: 14:28 01 May 2013 | UPDATED: 14:28 01 May 2013
Lawyers in Devon have launched a campaign against proposed changes in legal aid which could force defendants to be represented by firms run by Tesco or Eddie Stobart.
Protesters fear scores of small independent solicitors could be forced out of business if the Government’s plans are put into effect later this year.
Defence lawyers say innocent people may be pressured into pleading guilty to crimes they have not committed to save on costs if large new franchises take over criminal legal aid work.
Barristers and solicitors have started an online petition to try to change the proposals which would herald a drastic shake up of the current system but only say a few million pounds.
At present anyone accused of a crime can go to the solicitor of their choice who can apply for legal aid, which will be granted dependent on the seriousness of the crime and the means of the defendant, many of whom have to pay heft contributions.
Under the proposals the entire budget for defence work will be handed over to a small number of large franchises and national companies. Tesco, Eddie Stobart and G4S have expressed an interest in tendering.
Opponents claim these companies are too heavily linked to the state and will not be able to provide truly independent advice.
Barristers are also worried that the current system by which they are hired on a case by case basis will also change and that the centuries-old tradition of the independent bar is under serious threat.
An online petition has been launched by Rachel Bentley, of Trinity Advocates in Exeter, and has been supported by lawyers from all over the region.
She has written to the Ministry of Justice setting out the concerns of local law firms.
She said: “Every day we see defendants struggling to represent themselves in court, pressurised to plead guilty at every turn and struggling with terminology and the formality of the court process.
“What hope is there that a lay person will understand evidential concepts of hearsay, bad character or the burden of proof? What justice is there in a trial which is not conducted on a level playing field?”
Barrister Miss Emily Pitts, who is part of the campaign against the plan, said: “This is about the destruction of a fundamental right to choose your legal representative.”
Miss Pitts said some of the proposals are sensible, such as barring recent arrivals in Britain from legal aid, but others will damage the system, including cutting solicitor cover at police stations.
The campaign’s petition can be found at: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628 and there is also a website at www.save.ukjustice.net.
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