Leal Aid cuts put into doubt by court ruling

The government’s plans for introducing £220 criminal legal aid cuts have been put on hold following a high court ruling in which it was held that the Ministry of Justice consultation process was illegal due to its unfairness. The decision is a major setback for the justice secretary, Chris Grayling who was heading the negotiations between the government and the legal profession which resolved in a 17.5% cut in fees as well as the reduction in the number of contract solicitors on duty to attend police stations and court hearings.

The process was said to be “so unfair as to amount to illegality” by Mr Justice Burnett. He said that the government had refused to allow those engaged in the process to comment on the reports by accounting firms KPMG and Otterburn, which provided the foundation for deciding how many contracts for criminal advisory work would be available to solicitors’ firms.

The Ministry of Justice will now consider the judgment and seek advice on whether it is now requires to rerun the consultation process to a satisfactory and above board level. A royal commission is to be sought to examine the funding to access to justice by the  Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, which brought the judicial review challenge in the instance.

Chairman of the CLSA Bill Waddington had previously requested documents prior to the courts ruling. He stated that failure to provide such documents had reduced dramatically the number of firms able to apply for duty contracts, without the profession being given any chance to comment upon the assumptions outlined in the reports.

Mr Waddington said that this “is a damming indictment of the lord chancellor, Chris Grayling. The head of our world-renowned justice system must act fairly, instead he has attempted to enact a plan that is manifestly unfair. Limiting access to justice and shredding the treasured principle of equality before the law”. He continued by saying that at a time  “when constitutional change is in the air, the right of citizens to defend themselves against state-funded prosecutions is not something that should be manipulated in a political way, but investigated impartially to appropriate savings and reforms that are sustainable and in the public interest.”

A spokesman for the Minitsry of Justice commented that the “judicial review was not wholly successful – the claimants failed in their challenge to the fee cut”.

 

Regulation makes it costly to run a media business

Some of the nation’s most respected newspaper and publisher groups have threatened to lodge a European legal challenge if the government penalises them if they fail to sign up to the royal charter backed regulation on the press. The papers fear that this is likely to increase legal costs in privacy and libel court action if the government does not allow self-regulation and insists on the royal charter standard of media regulation.  

The law has been already inserted in to section 20 of the Crime and Courts Act and means that magazines and newspapers will be unable to recoup their legal fees even if they are to win in their high court cases unless they have gone through a process of arbitration with a unit approved by the regulator. In the larger more complex cases there are likely to be other legal fees incurred such as punitive and exemplary damages in addition to the libel damages.

This effect of the proposed regulation is threatening for the business of the media groups since they are already faced with hefty legal burdens in the region of £500,000 to £1,000,000 for those prolonged libel disputed. The newspapers have made no secret of their concern which in their eyes will have a “chilling effect” on journalism across the board. The changes are likely to mean that there is more safety in publishing with sources being checked thoroughly and some articles remaining unpublished.

Insiders in the press business say that if the proposals regarding exemplary damages and legal costs are not reconsidered and revised, they are likely to lodge a challenge on the government’s proposed regulation with the European Court of Human Rights. A newspaper executive stated that the action would signify the little choice which the newspapers are left with the legal costs being so hefty and out of proportion that they would simply be unbearable.

Deep disappointment has already been expressed by the Sun, Daily Main and the Telegraph who have all had proposals turned down by the government. Stig Abell, the managing editor of the Sun, stated that the government’s latest refusal of the regulation proposal has given them one final push for negotiation which could either end up in the press setting up its own regulation system which does not get government approval or a government backed regulator to which no paper signs up. Essentially the argument is one of business with the proposed penalties for not signing up to the royal charter possibly leading to intolerable trading conditions with little room for the maintenance of a sustainable business.