Lord Chancellor acted unlawfully
Posted: 25th September 2014
In a stunning victory for hundreds of criminal law firms – and a huge embarrassment for the Government – the High Court has struck down a cornerstone of the Lord Chancellor’s controversial reforms of the criminal legal aid system.
In February 2014, the Lord Chancellor announced that the number of firms which would be permitted to provide duty solicitors at police stations and magistrates courts would be reduced from about 1,600 to just 525. Many hard-pressed law firms said that the changes would force them out of business and put the whole fabric of the criminal justice system in jeopardy. However, the reforms were swiftly implemented by the Criminal Legal Aid (Remuneration) (Amendment) Regulations 2014.
In overturning the Lord Chancellor’s decision to drastically reduce the number of authorised service providers, the Court ruled that there had been a failure to properly consult the affected law firms. It was also unfair that the Lord Chancellor had failed to disclose reports prepared by external consultants on which he had based the financial and other assumptions on which the decision was reached.
The Court accepted arguments that the firms themselves were the best placed to assess the full impact of the reforms and should have been given the opportunity to comment on the assumptions adopted. However, the Court did not interfere with swingeing reductions in criminal legal aid fees after accepting Government arguments that they were driven by ‘an immediate financial imperative’ and that the firms affected had had a fair opportunity to deal with the issue.