Grayling denies legal aid 'U-turn'

BarristerThe Justice Secretary has denied that innocent defendants will be coerced into pleading guilty as a result of changes being made to legal aid.

Appearing before the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, Chris Grayling said he did not accept that plans to pay lawyers the same fee for a not guilty plea as they would be paid for a guilty plea, which typically takes up less of their time, would lead to undue influence to plead.

And the Justice Secretary denied performing a "U-turn" over plans to remove a client's right to choose a solicitor after he wrote to the Committee in advance to announce his intention to rework the proposal. Mr Grayling has announced a raft of reforms in his ''transforming legal aid'' consultation to save £220 million a year.

Quizzing the Justice Secretary, Conservative Dartford MP Gareth Johnson said: "Your proposals are to have just one fee so whether someone has a two day trial or pleads guilty or has a cracked trial they will get one fee based on the cracked fee model that exists at the moment.

"Do you accept that there are dangers here that undue influence will be placed upon a defendant to plead guilty because quite clearly under your proposals there are financial incentives to have someone pleading guilty at an early stage rather than going through a short trial."

Mr Grayling replied: "As a steward of taxpayers' funds, I want people who are guilty to plead guilty as early as possible. But I don't for a second believe that the high professional standards that exist in our legal profession would have any lawyer trying to persuade someone who is not guilty to plead guilty."

Mr Johnson went on: "Can you not accept under these proposals, where there's going to be less fees kicking around, less money in the system, that there's a huge pressure placed upon that lawyer, who's trying to pay their mortgage, trying to make ends meet, to say to that client of theirs 'Look, if you can plead guilty if there's a way you want to plead guilty to this, let's facilitate that'."

To which 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."

The session comes after the Justice Secretary indicated he was preparing to rework one of the most heavily-criticised aspects of the reform package. In a letter to the Justice Committee, he said he expected to make changes to a proposal to remove the client's right to choose a solicitor when receiving criminal legal aid. After consulting with the Law Society, which represents some 130,000 solicitors in England and Wales, Mr Grayling said he would look again at the issue and expected to allow a choice of solicitors for clients.

During the hearing, Seema Malhotra, Labour MP for Feltham and Heston, referred to the decision as a "U-turn". Mr Grayling said: "I take it that if a Government minister consults, listens and modifies progress it's a U-turn?"

Beware the small print

Beware the small print

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