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5 things you need to know about the MoJ’s terrifying legal aid cut announcement

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The Ministry of Justice’s long-awaited announcement about its consultation on reforms to criminal legal aid was released today, sending shockwaves through the profession. Here are five key points about a historic piece of bad news.

1. It was worse than expected.

Lawyers knew this would be bad, but they expected more than a few minor concessions. As it turned out the only real sugar coating of an extremely bitter pill was a fractional reduction in the amount being cut (as it turned out, a mere £215m is to be lopped off the legal aid budget, £5m less than had been threatened) and some waffle about “exploring the possibility of grants to aid practitioners to invest in digital technology as part of a digital criminal justice system.”

2. The Bar is genuinely shocked by the news

“Today, our worst fears have been confirmed,” said Bar Council chair Nicholas Lavender QC in an unusually emotional statement issued in the wake of the Ministry of Justice’s midday announcement, in which he lamented “another round of cuts, after three years of cuts, cuts and more cuts”.

In isolation, today’s reduction of barristers’ fees (under the Advocates Graduated Fees Scheme (AGFS)) by an average of 6% doesn’t seem world-changing. But when considered in the context of the dramatic fee cuts that have taken place over the last few years — fee rates paid to Crown Court advocates have fallen by 21% on average since 2007, which is a 37% fall in real terms when inflation is allowed for — it’s understandable why criminal barristers are so angry. The government says that the reduction in fees will be less for rookie barristers, with a 2% reduction being quoted. But with those at the junior Bar already earning a pittance, it seems bizarre to inflict any further cuts on them.

3. Even the solicitors who have shown sympathy to reforming legal aid are freaking out.

Franklin Sinclair, the senior partner of Tuckers, one of the country’s larger legal aid law firms, has previously spoken out in support of reforming the current system. But after hearing today’s announcement — which included a cut of 17.5% cut in solicitors’ fees for all cases (which will be made in two stages of 8.75% cuts) — he tweeted that this was “a sad day and carnage will follow”.

In an interview with the Solicitors Journal, Sinclair added that this was “total disaster for everybody”, and predicted that a “large number of firms will be in big trouble and won’t survive.”

4. The era of Eddie Stobart and Tesco is almost upon us.

The reduction of solicitor “duty contracts” from a current figure of 1,700 to, as confirmed today, a mere 525 is set to force a wave of consolidation among legal aid law firms. As if that wasn’t dramatic enough a change to deal with, these firms will have to compete with controversial new legal market entrants keen to experiment with low-cost “Tesco Law” business models.

5. The government’s actions today mean that next Friday’s legal aid lawyer strike is going to be intense.

For many lawyers, this may be the moment when they decide enough is enough.

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The government’s full response to the legal aid consultation can be read here.