Legal aid cuts condemned by peers

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Senior legal figures in the House of Lords have fiercely criticised planned cuts to fees paid to barristers in complex, high cost criminal cases - and urged a rethink.

The plans were debated in the House of Lords on 11 December 2013, after Liberal Democrat and legal expert Lord Carlile of Berriew sought a "Prayer to Annul" the enacting regulations.

The Ministry of Justice is proposing to cut fees paid to lawyers in "Very High Cost Cases" by 30%, and in other crown court work by up to 18%, as part of efforts to cut £220m from the legal aid budget by 2018-19.

The plans have led to barristers threatening to go on strike for the first time.

Lord Carlile said the "brutal" cuts were completely unacceptable and warned that they would damage the administration of justice, the rule of law and equality and diversity at the bar.

The former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, Lord Woolf, demanded an urgent rethink, while Conservative QC Lord Faulks told peers: "I fear these cuts really threaten our criminal justice system."

The crossbench peer, Lord Alton of Liverpool, said barristers were being asked to shoulder "wholly disproportionate" cuts to their income, and feared it could put people off from entering the profession, especially those from a disadvantaged background.

Similar concerns were echoed by Lord Thomas of Gresford, who agreed with Baroness Deech, chair of the Bar Standards Board, that the cuts were leading to the "suffocating of the criminal bar".

Lord Beecham, speaking from the opposition frontbench, said the debate had involved a "huge amount of experience at the highest level".

He said the pursuit of justice will be made "more difficult" if the government presses ahead with the changes, and lent his voice to the calls for a re-think of the cuts.

Liberal Democrat Justice Minister Lord McNally defended the planned cuts as he wrapped up the debate for the government.

He asserted that "change is necessary" to deliver "efficient and effective" legal services in "new and innovative ways".

Addressing fears about he recruitment, the minister said there was "no sign" of a lack of young people entering the profession.

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