Baroness Hale on legal aid cuts: “There will be human rights issues”

The deputy president of the Supreme Court has said that government cuts to legal aid will be so damaging to the justice system that “there will come a point when there are human rights issues,” as litigants in person find themselves unable to properly represent their cases at trial against trained legal teams.

Baroness Hale of Richmond made her comments during a conference organised by Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) at London South Bank University on Wednesday evening.

In answer to a question from a member of the audience on whether the judiciary should criticise government policy more than it has previously, Baroness Hale replied: “It is not for the judiciary to tell government what to do… but it is entirely appropriate for the judiciary to point to the difficulties of some of the policies they espouse.”

She added that she and president of the Supreme Court Lord Neuberger “have gone as far as we think it is right to go” in their comments on government legal policy.

Baroness Hale gave the keynote speech at the conference. During her talk, she admitted: “What is going on now [legal aid cuts] is the opposite of what many of my generation had hoped for and expected.”

She also warned that the combination of a high-cost education and a low-paid career would be a deterrent to diverse candidates and questioned why legal aid was seen as a “gravy train” for legal aid lawyers when the NHS is not viewed in the same way for doctors.

Meanwhile, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) has warned that lawyers will be given financial incentives to encourage legal aid clients to enter early guilty pleas and avoid trial.

LCCSA stated: “A client pleading guilty to a standard actual bodily harm charge in crown court will earn their lawyer as much as a 20 per cent fee increase. There are some cases in the crown court where a quick guilty plea will earn a lawyer a 75 per cent fee increase.

“This flies in the face of the government’s advertised 17.5 per cent cuts to save £220m from the legal aid budget.”

Steven Bird, a London solicitor and LCCSA member, told The Guardian: “The only conclusion to draw from these figures is the sad truth that the new fee structure is ideological and has nothing to do with austerity.

“By law, we’re already obliged to advise our clients about the benefits of an early guilty plea, by way of credit on their sentence… It doesn’t take a legal background – or criminal record – to realise that these incentives for a guilty plea and disincentives for a trial are an affront to justice.”

Responding, the MoJ said: “For a lawyer to advise a client to plead guilty when they are not would be one of the most serious breaches of the profession’s code of conduct, and could see them lose their right to practise. We do not believe a professional lawyer would do so.

“At around £2bn a year we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and even after our changes would still have one of the most generous. We cannot avoid finding efficiencies to ensure it remains sustainable and available to those most in need of a lawyer.”