04 June 2013

Government’s justice reforms could push innocent people to plead guilty, warns regulator

Plans to pay legal aid lawyers the same amount for a 'guilty' or 'not guilty' plea could lead to defendants being pressurised into pleading guilty, warns the Bar Standards Board (BSB). The BSB is responsible for regulating barristers in the public interest, upholding the rule of law and protecting consumers.  

Cases where the defendant enters an initial guilty plea are typically shorter and so cheaper than trials to assess guilt. Setting the same fee for cases where a defendant pleads guilty and for longer trials may create an incentive for lawyers to encourage clients to plead guilty.

The warning is part of the BSB's response to the Ministry of Justice's 'Transforming legal aid' consultation. The barristers' regulator is also concerned that plans to reduce the number of legal aid contracts by three quarters, and agree contracts based on price rather than quality, could increase the likelihood of incompetent or inadequate representation at criminal trials. This in turn could lead to:

• miscarriages of justice and wrongful convictions;
• trials being ineffective or taking longer than they should;
• a rise in the number of appeals from those challenging their convictions; and
• a crisis of public confidence - among victims, witnesses, and jurors - in the justice system.

The BSB response in detail

Awarding legal aid contracts on price, not quality
The BSB is seriously concerned that this prioritises the cost of legal representation over competence, and threatens to undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system.

Removing legal aid defendants' rights to choose their own representative
If there is no risk of losing a dissatisfied customer, there is little incentive to provide the best possible service.

Reducing the number of legal aid service providers
In its effort to cut spending on legal aid, the Government wants to cut the number of providers of legal aid services by three quarters - from 1600 to 400. The Government argues that this will save money, but there is no evidence to demonstrate this. This could lead to a legal aid 'postcode lottery'.

Endangering an independent, strong, diverse and effective legal profession
The Government risks undoing a decade's worth of progress in diversifying the profession by making practising within the criminal justice sphere unattractive and unfeasible for aspiring advocates - especially those without independent means to support themselves. 

Bar Standards Board Chair, Baroness Ruth Deech said: "These reforms may endanger the ability of our legal system to guarantee everyone a fair trial. While we accept that the current austerity measures are a consequence of the financial climate, protecting the public, and ensuring criminal cases are dealt with fairly and justly, remain of the utmost importance.

"As a regulator, we seek assurances from the MOJ that the public interest will be a central factor in reaching decisions on the final shape of the legal aid fee structure. At the very least, these proposals should be subject to the democratic scrutiny of parliamentary debate to prevent lasting harm to the credibility of the criminal justice system."

Chair of the Bar Standards Board's Quality Assurance Committee, Sam Stein QC, said: "These reforms represent a significant upheaval in our justice system. If we put in place financial incentives that could lead to some advocates telling clients to plead guilty when they're not, this will do irreparable damage not only to people's lives but to a justice system that has been world-renowned for centuries. These proposals will have a huge impact on an advocate's ability to represent their client's best interests - independently and fearlessly.

The BSB acknowledges that it is a matter for the Government to decide how much it is prepared to allocate to legal aid spending, but argues that it is also incumbent upon the MOJ to ensure that confidence in the criminal justice system is not eroded."

- ENDS -

Notes to editors 

The full response to the Ministry of Justice's consultation, entitled Transforming Legal Aid: delivering a more credible and efficient system, is available here. The annex to the response can be found here.

The Bar Standards Board regulates barristers called to the Bar in England and Wales in the public interest. It is responsible for:
• Setting the education and training requirements for becoming a barrister
• Setting continuing training requirements to ensure that barristers' skills are maintained throughout their careers
• Setting standards of conduct for barristers
• Monitoring the service provided by barristers to assure quality, and handling complaints against barristers and taking disciplinary or other action where appropriate.

Contact: the Bar Standards Board Press Office on 02076111392.