The Howard League for Penal Reform has today condemned the changes to legal aid provision that will come into effect from April 1st 2007 as a threat to assisting vulnerable children.
The government intends to stop paying legal aid providers by the hour, instead offering them a fixed fee for each case – with both lawyers and the voluntary sector bidding competitively for work.
A major rally against the changes organised by the Criminal Defence Solicitors Union and supported by legal aid groups, charities and other interested organisations will take place today at the Houses of Parliament.
Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Crook, said: ‘We are concerned as to the impact of these reforms on children in the criminal justice system.
‘It is clear that fixed fees will have a severe impact on child defence work as a whole – as working with children is inevitably more complex and time-consuming and under this new system it will become one of the least well-paid areas of work.
‘The work of our own legal team, part-funded by legal aid, has provided access to justice for many vulnerable children in custody.
‘Not only does the team deal with treatment and conditions inside prison but we increasingly deal with issues concerning the support and accommodation of children on release from custody – doing what we can to ensure that these children are not placed in an environment where they reoffend.
‘We have dealt with hundreds of cases and have only three full-time solicitors working on these.
‘Without the legal aid system, we could not help the needy children who approach us.
‘Fixed fees will threaten all of this.
‘The children we represent are simply too vulnerable to deal with in any way other than as their needs dictate.
‘This is likely to lead to a situation where we, as a charity, are forced to subsidise the legal aid system – turning down vulnerable clients with complex needs not on the merits of their case, but on whether we have the money to help them.
‘These reforms, which will see justice for some but not for all, have not even come before parliament.
‘The government must delay the changes and ensure that the new system introduces safeguards for vulnerable clients such as children.’
The rally in protest at legal aid changes takes place today from 2.30pm-5.30pm at Old Palace Yard, opposite the Houses of Parliament.