WINCHESTER and Chandler’s Ford MP Steve Brine has waded into the row over proposed changes to legal aid.
Lawyers in Winchester have warned that hundreds of jobs could be lost in the city and throughout Hampshire as a result of a “reckless” government plan to cut its annual £1billion.
The coalition is looking to slash its legal bill by introducing price competition and tendering among firms providing criminal legal aid.
Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Brine recounted a letter from a constituent solicitor who had recently defended a man with psychiatric problems.
Mr Brine, a member of the justice committee, said: “My and my constituent’s concern is that under price competitive tendering, the duty solicitor, who almost certainly would not know the defendant, might well advise a guilty plea, with an alien barrister, either in the magistrate’s court, or at first appearance in the crown court. My constituent tells me that the fee is the same for a guilty plea as it is for a short trial, so what is the incentive to have a trial?”
Currently, those in police custody can request any solicitor on the county’s roster. Under the government proposals, that choice would be scrapped, and firms providing legal aid in Hampshire would be reduced from 45 to just nine.
In May, barrister Andy Houston, of Winchester’s Pump Court Chambers, told the Chronicle: “I think we’re going to see large organisations — Eddie Stobart lawyers — come in. The local solicitors firms, as they are now, will have to make large scale redundancies.
“The out-of-area providers who come in should use local lawyers, but I don’t think they will. I can see large firms in London seeing Hampshire as ‘only an hour away’.”
After the same point was raised at the commons debate, Mr Brine said: “I am not sure that that is the aim of the reforms, but it might be one of the consequences.”
The justice minister, Chris Grayling, claims the changes will save £220 million a year and lawyers responses to the government’s consultation paper are now being considered, with the tendering process slated for autumn this year.