So Labour wants to cut criminal legal aid again?

Already, the private firms which constitute the Criminal Defence Service are stretched paper thin.  As an appeal lawyer reviewing the work of many different lawyers I observe that a significant proportion provide no effective service at all any more.   As the rate for the job has fallen for 18 successive years in a row, it is hardly surprising that all the available economies were captured many years ago.

When legal aid law firm incomes are squeezed, all that remains now is to cut the quality of service.   Clients are too often told that witnesses are irrelevant, experts cannot be found, and better disclosure would make no difference.  And the consequence is an increasing number of miscarriages of justice, most of them incapable of fixing within the framework of the UK appeal system.

The last Labour government sat on its hands for 13 years.  It failed to jump the fence of professional opposition and instituted no significant reform of the legal aid market.  Instead, it disembowelled its own quality assurance and anti-fraud mechanisms leaving a market rife with poor standards, where better firms have fared worse.   Given its majority and its bold words before the 1997 election it was a shameful failure.

We cannot rely on vulnerable clients in the areas of mental health, crime and welfare law to raise the alarm when lawyers fail.  If there are to be further budget cuts in criminal legal aid the work needs to be rationalised in the hands of a smaller number of larger firms which are subject to much closer regulatory inspection.  It is time for Labour to revisit this area and face up to its responsibilities.

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