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Chris Grayling defends proposed legal aid changes

image captionThe government is planning to make savings with the criminal legal aid bill

The justice secretary has defended the government's proposed changes to legal aid in England and Wales.

Chris Grayling told MPs he wanted a legal aid system "that provides justice but that is also affordable".

The changes are intended to cut the £2.2bn legal aid bill by £350m.

His comments come as a Bar Council poll, which represents barristers in England and Wales, found 71% of 2,000 Britons asked were concerned cuts could lead to wrongful convictions.

The survey was conducted by ComRes through online interviews with 2,033 British adults between 10 and 12 May.

The proposals being considered by the government for reforms to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act include stopping defendants with a disposable income of more than £37,500 from automatically receiving legal aid and curbing the right of prisoners to legal aid.

'Quality threshold'

Public funding has already been removed from entire areas of civil law, including some family cases.

The consultation also paves the way for lawyers to compete for contracts, but the Law Society, representing solicitors in England and Wales, has previously said that could be "catastrophic".

When asked by shadow justice minister Robert Flello whether miscarriages of justice were a price worth paying for the reforms, Mr Grayling said: "I still don't think that the opposition understands the nature of the financial mess they left behind and what we have to do to balance the books.

"I have absolutely no intention of ending up with a legal aid market which is dominated by a small number of very large firms.

"And a central part of the tendering process will involve a quality threshold that ensures that we have the quality of advocacy and the quality of litigation support in this country that we need and expect.

"We also have to have a system that is affordable at a time of great financial stringency. Our proposals are designed to find the right balance between those two."

Meanwhile, according to the Bar Council's survey:

  • Eight out of 10 (83%) of those surveyed believed that people accused of a crime should be treated as innocent until proven guilty
  • Seven in 10 (71%) were worried that innocent people could be convicted of crimes they did not commit if they were forced to use the cheapest defence lawyer available
  • Three-quarters (75%) said it would be the poorest members of society who would be most affected if the government made cuts to legal aid
  • Two-thirds (68%) also agreed that, at less than 0.5% of annual government spending, legal aid was a worthwhile investment in our basic freedoms
  • More than half (53%) agreed that the UK justice system was respected by people around the world because of the quality of UK barristers

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said having an independent legal profession was "fundamental to a fair and democratic society".

She added: "The public hugely values our legal aid system and it is concerned about the consequences of the government's proposals.

"The Ministry of Justice should listen to what people are saying and the strong messages delivered by this poll. The public thinks a properly funded legal aid system is a price worth paying for living in a fair society. This is not just the view of groups of lawyers.

"We have a justice system and legal professionals who make a huge and varied contribution to our society. The British public recognises that and so do people all over the world. It is not too late for the government to realise that also."

Solicitors and barristers from across England and Wales are to gather in Westminster on Wednesday to demonstrate against the proposed legal aid changes.

More on this story

  • Legal aid: Government consults on £220m savings plan