Police and Crime Commissioner for Derbyshire, Alan Charles, has hit out against proposed cuts to legal aid funds.
The elected official in charge of setting the county's policing priorities voiced his concern on Christmas Day, warning that cuts will mean victims have less access to justice.
The Ministry of Justice says savings are needed in the current system and announced plans in February last year to cut the number of duty solicitor contracts at magistrates’ courts and police stations by more than two thirds, from 1,600 to 527. It also introduced an 8.75 per cent cut to legal aid fees for solicitors working in police stations and magistrates’ courts in July this year to further reduce costs.
The new legal aid contracts were awarded in October however full implementation has been delayed through a series of legal challenges by the industry. It is now suggested that April 1 2016 will be the earliest start date for the new contracts.
Commissioner Charles has previously written to the Ministry of Justice to criticise proposals to close Buxton Magistrates’ Court and shift the court’s caseload to Chesterfield – 25 miles away - saying the move would create “unacceptable” travelling times for vulnerable victims and witnesses.
In a statement issued this week, Mr Charles said: “As Police and Crime Commissioner for Derbyshire, I’m concerned that the cost-saving changes being proposed to the legal aid system will have serious repercussions for the justice process.
“With fewer legal aid contracts available, the worry is that access to justice will limited to those areas where legal firms have successfully won contracts – what does this mean for victims of crime, defendants or witnesses living in parts of Derbyshire not served by a legal aid firm?
“Will this further burden vulnerable victims’ who already face long journeys to attend court under the Buxton Magistrates’ Court closure proposals and who may now also have to do the same to acquire legal advice?”
Mr Charles also said the new arrangements could also place unnecessary delays on the time it takes for police to process detainees.
“The previous contract imposed a limit of 45 minutes for a legal representative to arrive at a police station for an interview. That limit has been removed to accommodate the size of the procurement areas, so it is perfectly reasonable to anticipate police being kept waiting for significantly longer than that,” he said.
“Many law firms risk going out of business under the changes which could lead to a dramatic decline in the quality of legal representation across the county which would remove choice and may ultimately result in miscarriages of justice.”
The Commissioner said he would be monitoring the situation closely and would continue to fight any changes which would have a detrimental effect on people’s right to justice in the county.