Chris Grayling is threatening the very foundations of the criminal justice system, according to a solicitor who joined thousands of lawyers in protest today against the MP’s reforms to legal aid.
Steven Bird, 50, of Ashtead, is participating in "Grayling Day" - a nationwide walkout by criminal law barristers and solicitors, organised by the Justice Alliance.
The Justice Alliance - an umbrella organisation for charities, community and campaigning groups, grassroots, trade unions and individuals - was formed in response to the Epsom MP’s proposals to change legal aid, in his capacity as Secretary of State for Justice.
The reforms include a reduction in fees paid by the taxpayer to criminal solicitors and barristers to represent defendants and plans to limit prisoners’ access to legal aid.
"Grayling Day" has been billed as a "demo to save legal aid" with a large demonstration outside Parliament and a march to the Ministry of Justice.
A criminal solicitor for 25 years, Mr Bird runs Birds Solicitors on Wandsworth High Street and is a member of the Justice Alliance.
He is also a committee member on the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and chairman of the Criminal Appeal Lawyers Association.
He believes Mr Grayling is not engaging with the profession properly on the issue - which strongly believes that no more can be cut from the legal aid budget without compromising the administration of justice.
Video from today's protest. (YouTube - flaneurtv)
Mr Bird said: "There have been consistent cuts over the last 10 to 15 years to the criminal legal aid budget.
"The Government now says they are going to bring in a 8.75 per cent drop in the rate of legal aid payments.
"You’re not talking about firms in the City who will be affected, but relatively small firms who are going to struggle to continue to provide a service to those in their locality.
"There will be firms who stop doing the work as they can’t afford it or they will start doing privately-funded criminal work and you will end up with a two-tier service.
"People will not get a high quality service."
Mr Bird said that while the changes would result in a pay cut to criminal defence solicitors, they are also worried that justice itself is at stake.
He said: "We are really concerned about what’s going to happen to the criminal justice system as a whole.
"Yes, our livelihoods will be affected but it’s not about that. What will be the effect if you take away or de-skill the criminal defence side of the system? You will end up with people who are wrongly convicted.
"And defence barristers also prosecute so there’s a legacy for the future: where are our prosecutors going to come from if you are putting people off coming into the profession?
"I can’t tell any youngsters coming into this profession to come and do criminal work.
"We are told that Britain’s criminal justice system is the envy of the world. This is pushing it to the edge."
The solicitor said that today’s protest is necessary because "no one is listening to us".
"We have been trying to engage with Chris Grayling over a lengthy period of time.
"He thinks he can take 17.5 per cent of savings out of the criminal justice system and still have a quality service," Mr Bird added.
"What Chris Grayling talks about all the time is austerity and that legal aid can’t be immune from the savings.
"We have had cuts over the last 10 years to legal aid. We don’t think we can actually take any more out of the system and provide a quality service.
"He has never engaged with us about getting an overview of the whole criminal justice system to see where savings can be made elsewhere in the system."
Mr Bird said one of the concerning changes is how an income level of a household could affect whether defendants could qualify for legal aid in the future.
He added: "Not everyone charged is guilty of offences. The miscarriage of justice rate will go up as the quality of the service goes down."
Guildford Crown Court, which hears the most serious cases from the Epsom and Ewell area, was open as usual today but said "not everybody was represented by counsel".
The Epsom Guardian has contacted Mr Grayling for his response to this issue and today's protests but has not yet received a response.
Tooting MP Sadiq Khan, Shadow Secretary of State for Justice, was in attendance at today's demonstration and addressed protestors. He declined to comment when challenged on whether Labour would reverse the proposed reforms to legal aid if elected to Government next year.