Study finds strong public support for legal aid, as new charges of up to £1,200 for anyone convicted in magistrates and crown courts are introduced.
The public is more concerned about access to justice than free healthcare, according to a poll commissioned by lawyers campaigning to reverse cuts to legal aid.
The findings from a YouGov poll have been released as the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats vie to pledge more and more funding for the NHS.
The figures, which challenge the consensus over the public’s priorities, coincide with the introduction on Monday of punitive charges of up to £1,200 for anyone convicted in magistrates and crown courts.
According to the online poll, 84% of those replying rated access to justice as a fundamental right, compared with 82% for healthcare that is free at the point of use and 79% for the state pension. The survey also found that when told the definition of legal aid, 89% of the sample believed that its availability is important for ensuring access to justice for all income groups.
The polling was commissioned by the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA), which is to stage a “vote for justice” rally on 23 April at Central Hall in Westminster to focus electoral attention on cuts to legal aid. The online poll 0f 2,022 adults was conducted on 1-2 April.
Robin Murray, vice-chair of the CLSA, said: “The findings are a definitive statement to all political parties that the public believe access to justice, underpinned by legal aid, is a fundamental right. Despite five years of unrelenting cuts and dishonest rhetoric that ‘we cannot afford the system as it currently stands’, the public have signalled their support for legal aid is unwavering.
“[It] is particularly heartening to a battered and bruised profession and has given us all a real shot in the arm ahead of our vote for justice rally. At the rally on 23 April we will add our collective voice to the general election campaign and make sure that politicians start taking seriously the absolute crisis our once world-renowned legal system finds itself in.”
The new criminal courts charge, which is not means-tested, will have to be paid on top of other financial penalties, such as fines, compensation, prosecution costs or the victims’ surcharge. The charge is eventually expected to raise up to £185m a year towards the expense of administering justice and the courts.
The savings introduced by the Ministry of Justice over the past five years – such as cuts to legal aid, professional fees and increases in civil court fees – have been felt most acutely by lawyers, and the charge may extend resentment about austerity in the justice system to a new section of the public. More than 1.1 million defendants were convicted at crown and magistrate courts in the 12 months ending September 2014.
Critics say the charges will only add to the growing debt burden owed to HM Courts and Tribunal Service and that much of it will prove to be uncollectable. The Ministry of Justice’s own impact assessment concedes that without cancelling some charges, total debt to HMCTS could rise to £1.2bn by 2020.
Some also fear it could create a perverse incentive for defendants to plead guilty even if they are not, because they may not be confident of avoiding a subsequent conviction that would cost more.
The new criminal court charges vary from £150 for a guilty plea for a summary offence in a magistrates court, through to £500 following conviction after a magistrates court trial and up to £1,200 for conviction after a trial in the crown court.
Those under the age of 18 will be exempt from the charge. Defendants who are acquitted will not have to pay. The charges apply to offences committed from Monday. The only means-testing element is that those judged not able to pay immediately will be allowed to pay the bill in instalments.
When the plans were revealed last year, the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, said: “Why should the law-abiding, hard-working majority pay for a court service for the minority who break the law? Those who live outside the law should pay the consequences both through being punished and bearing more of the costs they impose on society.”
Commenting on the charges, Richard Monkhouse, national chairman of the Magistrates Association, said at the weekend: “Now that this is in force, our members are interested to see how it will pan out because of previous concerns regarding the potential impact on defendants’ pleas, general concerns about criminal fine collection rates and also the area-by-area varying effectiveness of agencies getting cash out of offenders.
“We’d like to see a review to examine the changes in say six months, and if it doesn’t appear to be working we would like the introduction of judicial discretion to be strongly considered in applying charges.”