A examination of the Government's Green Paper on legal aid, carried out by the Bar Council has found that proposals by the Ministry of Justice to cut legal aid could end up costing rather than saving taxpayers' money, with a devastating effect on access to justice.
The Bar Council's response to the legal aid consultation was handed in to the Ministry of Justice yesterday. It reveals that a wholesale withdrawal of legal aid in some practice areas means there is almost certain to be a significant increase in ‘litigants in person', as more people have to go to court alone to fight their case.
The Bar's response, which reflects the views of all the Circuits in England and Wales and numerous Specialist Bar Associations, is the culmination of a three-month review of the Government's proposals by a multi-disciplined working party, which included leading commercial, criminal and family QCs along with statisticians, economists and academics.
Stephen Cobb QC, Chairman of the Family Law Bar Association, who led the Bar Council's response, said: "We fear these attempted cuts, being so crude and brutal, will cost more than they save. They will trigger a surge in DIY litigants which risks gridlock in the courts, as they struggle to get justice.
"This will slow down the court process considerably. In the absence of proper or reliable evidence on which the proposals are based, and our identification of clear unintended consequences, the Government cannot say with any confidence that the proposed cuts will not end up costing as much as it is trying to save. Put simply, the proposals don't add up.
"We think that the effects on the administration of justice and the running of the courts, and the burden on other departments - most notably the Department of Health - could cost the Government sums approximating to the sums it is trying to save."
The Bar Council says that it thinks the savings could be made elsewhere by cutting out waste and bureaucracy.
Mr Cobb QC added: "This response is not about barristers, but about ensuring that where cuts are made access to justice does not suffer. The Government's proposals have not been properly impact-assessed. They will have seemingly unintended and very serious consequences which will be a significant concern for taxpayers.The Bar Council wanted to look very closely at the detail of the Green Paper before commenting. This is a principled, evidence-base response. We have not sounded off.
"We have responded with the benefit of experts in other disciplines to examine the consequences of the changes as a whole. We have also investigated where we could work together with the Government to identify areas of the justice system in which savings could be made, so that vulnerable people do not suffer."
The Bar Council are warning that barristers who practise in crime and family work are in the front line.
Mr Cobb QC warned that: "in these and other practice areas, the threats posed by the Government's proposals are real and potentially brutal. In family cases, men or women suffering from serious psychological abuse may go unrepresented in private law proceedings. Parents, without representation, could face the removal of their children into care if the court finds reasonable grounds for believing that the children are suffering significant harm. Consumers suffering at the hands of negligent corporate entities may have to fund their own claims. The list is extensive."
He concluded: ""Without the help and support of a proper system of legal aid, vulnerable people whose rights have been infringed may not be in a position to pursue those rights at all. This is not the type of justice that a civilised society should expect."