Could legal aid changes mean you're forced to plead guilty?

Changes to the legal aid system could lead to miscarriages of justice and job losses, charities and leading lawyers have warned.

The proposed changes been met with widespread resistance as the Ministry of Justice attempts to save £220 million a year from the country's £2.2 billion legal bill.

The Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has backtracked on one unpopular proposal - to remove a client's right to choose a solicitor when they receive legal aid – but presses on with plans to pay lawyers the same fee for a not guilty plea as they would be paid for a guilty plea.

Currently, lawyers are paid more legal aid for defendants making not guilty pleas, which involve more time and work to represent. Concerns have been raised in Parliament that the fee change could lead to innocent individuals being persuaded to plead guilty.

Responding to the issue, raised by Conservative Dartford MP Gareth Johnson House of Commons Justice Select Committee, Mr Grayling replied: "We're not going to get into a situation where people who are innocent are being coerced into pleading guilty for financial reasons. I don't believe those standards exist in the legal profession."

Legal aid reforms
As part of the Ministry of Justice's reforms to legal aid, financial support is being withdrawn for many family cases, leaving vulnerable people without legal representation. As a result, it is feared that some people may attempt to represent themselves in court – leading to longer cases and unfair trials.

Debra Stevens, divorce lawyer and author of 'How2Divorce' comments: "Of course it is the vulnerable groups of society such as single parents and those who are out of work and dependent upon state benefits that will be worst affected, but in today's recession an increased number of people cannot afford to instruct a solicitor so it is likely that we will all be affected to some degree by these changes."

Derek Marshall, barrister and deputy head of College Chambers in Southampton, adds: "I fully believe the result of this process will be serious miscarriages of justice. Quite apart from all the harm this will do to clients, it is likely to be more expensive to put right in the long term."

Job losses
The funding cuts are expected to impact heavily on small law firms reliant upon legal aid, with job losses predicted as firms are forced to merge or close.

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Grayling denied he wanted large corporate law firms taking over but said consolidation is needed within the legal profession.

Yet cuts will undoubtedly change the landscape of legal representation in the UK, warns Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citzen's Advice: "Further cuts to legal aid funding threaten the fundamental principle of the universal right to access justice.

"The Government's consultation is focused on criminal cases but if people simply can't talk to a solicitor as more and more firms are forced to close, then the knock-on effects could be devastating for everyone in society, not just the individuals facing charges."

10 consumer rights you should know
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Could legal aid changes mean you're forced to plead guilty?

The law states that any goods you buy from a UK retailer should be of satisfactory quality, as described, fit for purpose and last a reasonable amount of time.

This applies even if you buy items in a sale or with a discount voucher. You may have to insist on these rights being respected, though.

Useful phrases to use when you want to show you mean business include, "according to the Sale of Goods Act 1979" and, if it's a service, "according to the Supply of Goods and Services Act 1982".

Some shops will allow you to exchange goods without a receipt, but they can refuse to should they wish.

If the goods are faulty, however, another proof of purchase such as a bank statement should work just as well.

If you attempt to return goods within four weeks of the purchase, your chances of getting a full refund are much higher as you can argue that you have not "accepted" them.

After this point, you can only really expect an exchange, repair or part-refund.

The updated Consumer Credit Act states that card companies are jointly and severally liable for credit card purchases of between £100 and £60,260 (whether or not you paid just a deposit or the whole amount on your card).

Anyone spending between these amounts on their credit card is therefore protected if the retailer or service provider goes bust, their online shopping never arrives or the items in question are faulty or not as described.

Start by writing to the agency asking it to either remove or change the entry that you think is wrong. It will investigate the matter and find out whether you have been the victim of ID theft or a bank's mistake.

Within 28 days from receipt of your letter the agency should tell you how the bank has responded. If the bank agrees to change the entry, they will authorise the agency to update their records. They should also send updates to any other credit reference agencies they use.

You can also contact your lender directly to query a mistake. If the lender agrees to the discrepancy, ask them to confirm this in writing on their letterhead and send a copy to the agency, asking them to update your file.

The FOS settles disputes between financial companies such as banks and consumers.

If a financial organisation rejects a complaint you make about its services, you can therefore escalate that complaint to the FOS - as long as you have given the company in question at least eight weeks to respond.

The FOS will then investigate the case, and could force the company to offer you compensation should it see fit.

Bailiffs are allowed to take some of your belongings to sell on to cover certain debts, including unpaid Council Tax and parking fines.

They can, for example, take so-called luxury items such as TVs or games consoles. However, they cannot take essentials such as fridges or clothes.

What's more, they can only generally enter your home to take your stuff if you leave a door or window open or invite them in.

You are therefore within your rights to refuse them access and to ask for related documents such as proof of their identity. If they try to force their way in, you can also call the police to stop them.

Private sector debt collectors do not have the same powers as bailiffs, whatever they tell you.

They cannot, for example, enter your home and take your possessions in lieu of payment.

In fact, they can only write, phone, or visit your home to talk to you about paying back the debt. As with bailiffs, you can also call the police if you feel physically threatened.

Thanks to the Distance Selling Regulations, you actually have more rights buying online or by phone than on the High Street.

You can, for example, send most goods back within a week, for a full refund (including outward delivery costs), even if there's no fault.

You will usually need to pay for the return delivery, though. The seller must then refund you within 30 days.

We enter into contracts all the time, whether it be to join a gym, switch energy supplier or take out a loan.

In most cases, once you've signed a contract, you are legally bound by it. In some situations, however, you have the right to cancel it within a certain timeframe.

Credit agreements, for example, can be cancelled within 14 days. And online retailers must tell you about your cancellation rights for any contract made up to stand up legally.

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