Solicitors and barristers staged a peaceful protest in the city today over proposed changes to the legal aid system.
More than a dozen advocates gathered outside Wakefield Magistrates’ Court at 9.59am on Tuesday as part of a nationwide “minute of unity” against the Government’s “Transforming Legal Aid” consultation, which ends today.
Critics say the plans, which included price-competitive tendering for contracts, would decimate the number of lawyers and lead to more miscarriages of justice.
A spokeswoman for Wakefield and Pontefract defence solicitors said: “The proposals in this area would lead to hundreds of lawyers losing their jobs and businesses and would leave ordinary people trying to defend themselves in court.”
She said the number of firms in West Yorkshire would be cut from 75 to 25, with work being allocated through “auction-style” bidding.
The spokeswoman added: “The losers would be law-abiding citizens who defend their homes against intruders. Or those who have a road traffic accident, leading to a criminal prosecution, or simply among the many innocent people accused of a crime they have not committed.”
The lawyer said the protest has already garnered more than 76,000 online signatures on the Save UK Justice petition. They need 24,000 more to trigger a debate in the Houses of Parliament.
But Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “We have one of the best legal professions in the world. But at a time of major financial challenges, the legal sector cannot be excluded from the Government’s commitment to getting better value for taxpayers’ money. We believe costs paid to lawyers through legal aid should reflect this.
“Professional, qualified lawyers will be available, just as they are now, and contracts will only be awarded to lawyers who meet quality standards set by the profession.
“Wealthy defendants who can afford to pay for their own legal bills should do so. Our proposal is to introduce a threshold on Crown Court legal aid so that people earning around £100,000 a year are no longer automatically granted legal aid.
“We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, with about £1 billion a year spent just on criminal legal aid. These changes are about getting the best value for the taxpayer, and will not in any way affect someone’s right to a fair trial.”
To look at the on-line petition please visit: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628