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Free legal representation at Barkingside and Romford magistrates' courts to be cut by a third under new scheme

PUBLISHED: 07:00 05 September 2019 | UPDATED: 11:14 19 September 2019

Barkingside Magistrates Court. Picture: Ken Mears

Barkingside Magistrates Court. Picture: Ken Mears

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The Ministry of Justice is weighing up plans to reduce defendants' access to free legal representation at Barkingside and Romford magistrates' courts by cutting duty solicitor slots by a third.

On Wednesday, September 4, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) - the branch of the Ministry of Justice responsible for providing lawyers and solicitors to those who can't afford them privately - published a consultation document revealing plans to administratively merge the two courts and cut the number of duty solicitor slots on its rotas from 25 to 16.

A duty solicitor is a fully trained lawyer who provides their services for free to defendants in local courtrooms.

Anyone charged with an offence that could potentially carry a prison sentence is entitled to one.

Previously, there have been dedicated duty solicitors slots at both Romford and Barkingside separately throughout the week.

As the larger court, Barkingside was allotted 17 duty slots while Romford had eight.

But court staff recently informed the LAA that the number of duty solicitors it has is excessive.

This has led to the rota being reviewed, and new proposals to merge the two courts and offer a total of 16 duty solicitor slots each week are being put forward.

As part of the consultation, an alternative scheme to keep the two individual courts and offer eight weekly slots to both has also been mooted, though the LAA stresses in its consultation pack that this is not the preferred option.

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A two-week consultation is now running until 5pm on Wednesday, September 18.

The LAA is planning to respond to this consultation by Friday, September 20 with a view to implementing the rota change by October 1 if it is deemed acceptable.

In its consultation document, the LAA writes: "We appreciate that this does not provide you with much notice, this is unavoidable due to us only recently being made aware of this request from the court to amend future rotas."

Responses should be sent to laura.fernley@justice.gov.uk.

In May this year, HM Courts and Tribunals Service announced it was preparing to carry out a £1billion package of improvements including new technology and modern ways of working to the justice system, making it more accessible for everyone.

The long term aim of this project is to allow more people to access courts and other branches of the justice system remotely without having to appear in person.

Speaking at the time, justice secretary David Gauke said: "Our reform programme allows people to start to settle disputes away from the courtroom, while offering opportunities to improve our courts and tribunals.

"With new technology and modern ways of working, we expect the number of people accessing our courts remotely to increase.

"We are reviewing the current estate to ensure it is fit for purpose.

"This report makes sure that access to justice, value for money and efficiency are maintained in the long term and these principles will mean our justice system remains fit for the 21st century."

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