The government is consulting on plans to reform the criminal legal aid system in England and Wales in a bid to save £220 million. NATALIE CROCKETT spoke to solicitors in Gwent about how it will affect them.

PLANS to change the legal aid process for criminal cases will reduce quality of service, remove client choice and see high street firms disappear overnight, Gwent solicitors say.

Rod Young, of the Newport-based firm, Driscoll and Young, says the proposals put forward by justice secretary Chris Grayling were “insane”, “unsustainable” and “unworkable”.

He says the move would see the 30 to 40 firms in Gwent, which currently provide legal aid services, reduced to just four.

Existing firms are being invited to submit sealed bids to take on all cases at police stations and in the magistrates’ court from next year.

They will suggest a fee they will be willing to work for for the next three years, in a bid to win one of the four contracts.

But Mr Young said this is an almost impossible task because companies will not know how many cases they are agreeing to take on and how many staff they will need to manage the work load – all the while trying to win a price war.

There will also be a set fee for all representation under the new plans.

Currently Driscoll and Young receives £200 for representing clients who plead guilty in court and £340 for a not guilty plea, because it requires more work for a trial.

But under the new proposals solicitors will get a fixed fee regardless of how much work is involved, which Mr Young said is bound to affect standards.

He said: “Human nature being what it is, if you are a solicitor and you know you are going to be paid £150 for dealing with that person are you going to be tempted to say plead guilty because you know you will be paid exactly the same for doing 20 minutes work as for a few days work?”

The new proposals will also see a defendants lose their right to chose their own solicitor.

Instead the accused will be allocated a representative based on what day of the week it is and where their name appears in the alphabet.

This will break down relationships firms have with regular clients and will create little incentive for lawyers to do a good job when they know they may not get return service, Mr Young said.

Keith Evans, a solicitor of 30 years and president of Monmouthshire Law Society, agrees.

He joined around 1,000 others at Westminster to oppose the plans last week.

He said: “Under the proposals, client care will count for nothing as assigned solicitors will not know enough about their client’s background to represent them fairly.

He said: “Why should the assigned solicitor take the time to get full details of the client’s background?

The chances are that he will never see that client or his family again. After all he is guaranteed his 25 per cent share of all the cases. It matters not at all whether that client is satisfied so that he would use that solicitor again.”

“The government seems to fail to appreciate they are playing with clients’ lives. It is very important to them that they have confidence in the person representing them when they are facing a custodial sentence. We are not selling washing machines, which can be returned to the shop if they do not work properly. HMP Cardiff has no customer service desk.”

The pair also fear for the future of high street firms and those of entering the profession.

Mr Young said: “Firms of solicitors will go bankrupt. They will have to lay off all their staff. It is a real worry and a real headache.”

He added that the new proposals also impacted on barristers representing defendants in the crown court.

They too will have pay restrictions enforced upon them, which could see them get as little as £14 a day once a trial goes past a certain number of days – a notion he branded “insane”.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “We will continue to uphold everyone’s right to a fair trial – these proposals will not affect that in any way. Professional, qualified lawyers will still be available, just as they are now, and contracts will not be awarded to lawyers who do not pass set quality standards.

“With one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world – about £1 billion a year is spent just on criminal legal aid – we can no longer avoid examining how to deliver better value for every penny of taxpayers’ money we spend.”

● Solicitors and barristers will pause for a minute of unity at 09.59 on June 4, before court proceedings to draw attention to the cuts.

A petition against the plans is at