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Lawyers warn of impact of legal aid cuts
6:32am Monday 7th July 2014 in News
Solicitors in Bradford have voiced fears that vulnerable defendants in criminal cases might not get justice because legal aid applications are being refused.
Lawyers in the city say there has been a big increase in the number of refusals in recent months, meaning solicitors are often not getting paid for representing clients, and in some cases defendants are having to represent themselves.
Solicitor Raj Kumar, who has a practice in Eldon Place, Bradford, said he was having as many as four out of five legal aid applications turned down by court administrators on the grounds of not being in the interests of justice.
Mr Kumar said: "The Magistrates court and/or the Legal Aid Agency, by refusing legal aid on the grounds given are affecting the victims of crime by minimising the seriousness of offences, and on the other hand the defendants who are facing the prospect of custody and having their future damaged by a conviction are being denied the legal aid representation.
"Some members of the public are not getting justice."
Criminal defendants have to pass a means test and an interests of justice test to be granted aid for legal representation. It allows for vulnerable people, who may have mental health or language difficulties and could be facing a custodial sentence, to be represented in court by a solicitor.
But Mr Kumar said applications were being refused on the grounds that custody was not likely.
He said one client on legal aid was given a conditional discharge after his fifth conviction for shop theft. But when he breached the order by committing a sixth offence, legal aid was refused. The same happened to a woman who had been given a conditional damage for criminal damage and breached it with a similar offence against the same complainant.
Mr Kumar said: "In both cases my clients were more likely to go into custody than on the previous occasion, but legal aid was refused. It is not fair and gives a poor message to the public. I believe they are cutting legal aid through the back door."
Fellow solicitor Keith Blackwell, who is based in Keighley, said: "Far more applications are being refused. It means that some defendants are having to go unrepresented. In some cases where custody may not be likely, the defendants still face a loss of reputation and in some cases there needs to be specialist knowledge or medical evidence.
"The public probably does not realise the extent to which legal aid has become limited. Everybody who becomes the subject of a charge should be concerned that they are going to be inadequately represented."
Mr Blackwell added: "Lawyers are regularly working for nothing. Nobody is going to have sympathy for us, but there are no fat cat lawyers in Bradford - not even a fat kitten."
A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: "There have been no recent changes to the Interests of Justice test, which is used to help determine whether legal aid is granted in criminal cases.
"Whenever someone is likely to go to jail if convicted, legal aid will generally be made available, subject to a means test.
"Anybody who is refused criminal legal aid because they do not satisfy the Interests of Justice can have that decision reviewed and can also appeal directly to the court."