Sheffield lawyers fear for future of profession

Barristers outside Sheffield Crown Court at their first protest in January
Barristers outside Sheffield Crown Court at their first protest in January

Fears have been raised of a drop in solicitors’ firms in South Yorkshire offering free legal aid if government cuts go ahead.

Lawyers and criminal barristers walked out of court in protest at the plans yesterday, amid fears the number of firms offering legal aid to those accused of criminal offences could fall from 33 to just seven.

The workers are angry at Ministry of Justice proposals to slash the fees it pays for legal aid cases – where those on a low income receive free legal advice.

There are 33 firms of solicitors in South Yorkshire who have contracts to deal with legal aid cases, but under the new plans the government will only offer seven firms contracts.

And lawyers fear large national chains will bid for the work in South Yorkshire, putting smaller firms out of business.

Barristers are also facing cuts to the fees they are paid for representing defendants in court as part of the drive to save £220 million from the £2 billion annual cost of legal aid.

The government says the system is expensive and cuts are necessary in austere times.

Barrister Mark George QC said: “Barristers and solicitors in Sheffield took action in protest at government plans for major cuts in funding for criminal cases.

“Free legal assistance is as much a part of the welfare state as the NHS.

“The latest cuts probably mean as many of half South Yorkshire solicitors will no longer be able to provide a service to those accused of crime.

“Talented barristers are leaving the profession as a result of previous cuts and the latest cuts will make matters worse.

“The net result will be a poorer service to the people of Sheffield and South Yorkshire should they have the misfortune to be accused of a criminal offence.”