UK legal aid proposal: bonuses for lawyers whose clients plead guilty

The latest salvo in the UK government's attack on legal aid is a new fee structure that will earn defense lawyers huge bonuses if they get an early guilty plea out of their clients, who, by definition, can't afford to hire lawyers who are incentivised to keep them out of jail.

It's pitched as a cost-saving measure, but that only holds true if the defendants are presumed to be guilty and the trial is seen as an expensive formality. On the other hand, if you support the idea that people are innocent until proven otherwise, this is a measure that will cause the state the enormous expense of imprisoning the innocent (and letting the guilty go free).

On the other other hand, if you're part of David Cameron's cabinet of millionaires, perhaps being unable to afford a lawyer is proof enough of your guilt. "If you can't afford a lawyer, you simply shouldn't get arrested. Obviously."

"A client pleading guilty to a standard actual bodily harm charge in crown court will earn their lawyer as much as a 20% fee increase," the LCCSA said. "There are some cases in the crown court where a quick guilty plea will earn a lawyer a 75% fee increase.

"Likewise, in magistrates courts a simple guilty plea [for instance, for common assault] will reward lawyers with a 17% pay increase. This flies in the face of the government's advertised 17.5% cuts to save £220m from the legal aid budget."

The association said the revised fees would result in some lawyers losing out as much as 65% in some magistrate court cases and up to 73% in some crown court cases. Steven Bird, a London solicitor and LCCSA member, said: "The only conclusion to draw from these figures is the sad truth that the new fee structure is ideological and has nothing to do with austerity.

"By law, we're already obliged to advise our clients about the benefits of an early guilty plea, by way of credit on their sentence … It doesn't take a legal background – or criminal record – to realise that these incentives for a guilty plea and disincentives for a trial are an affront to justice."

Lawyers to earn higher legal aid fees for early guilty pleas [Owen Bowcott/The Guardian]

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