*** Please sign the e-petition on Legal Aid
The government's purge of legal aid crosses the border into authoritarianism and tyranny - Conservative Student 20th May
Lord McNally's balloons - Guy Gozem QC
Natural justice faces a savage loss of innocence - Nick Cohen - 15th June 2013
Like many nations, the UK has been hit by the general economic crisis. It is generally accepted that there is a need to save considerable sums of money and it is for government to identify ways in which the money might be saved. Most areas of government are having to take cuts and the decisions needed are not easy. We all wish to have good health care, fine schools and many other things including access to justice with legal aid for those who cannot afford it.
Having said this, we have a government maintaining a militaristic foreign policy which does not seem to baulk at replacing the ageing Trident programme - £100bn a considerable underestimate? Neither does it seem to worry about the huge 'ring-fenced' overseas aid budget even though government borrowing remains high. In addition, huge sums of money have been doled out to various private sector service providers - see Ministry of Justice contracts for 2012 .
It is in this financial context
that the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has put forward his plans - (the 'Grayling' plans) - for Reforming Legal Aid . Lawyers are not closing their eyes to this context even though the Minister's proposals have resulted in serious opposition from the profession generally.
A number of articles have appeared in popular newspapers which seek to lampoon all lawyers as 'fat cats' milking the public purse - for example, Quentin Letts - Daily Mail 12th June - The lawyers were out in force, a yuppy, beady-eyed crowd. Letts, in this seriously misleading article, referred to the Justice Committee hearing on 11th June at which the committee took evidence about the Grayling proposals and, especially, Price Competitive Tendering (or PCT). The committee hearing may be viewed via Parliament TV and if you are seriously interested in this subject you should watch as senior members of the legal profession explain the well-considered objections of the profession to the government's plans. Their presentation is far from 'hysterical' (as Lord McNally, in conversation with Joshua Rozenberg on BBC4's Law in Action 11th June, described the reaction of many lawyers).
For my part, I would rather my country be governed sensibly by Ministers who put forward well constructed proposals with evidence to support their plans. The Grayling proposals are neither well-constructed nor supported by adequate evidence. There is some dispute as to the number of responses received by the Ministry of Justice but it is perhaps in the region of 13000. That figure is, in itself, very rare for government consultations about the law which usually attract, at the most, a few hundred responses. This is not a case of every solicitor's firm 'pinging' in a 'furious letter' as Quentin Letts put it. There are mostly detailed responses from numerous highly responsible bodies (and individuals) deeply concerned by the likely impact on justice for the average citizen of the Grayling proposals.
My blog has collated over 70 of these responses (HERE) and some link to many more. The responses range over the whole range of the Ministry's proposals but possibly the most contentious proposal is Price Competitive Tendering (or PCT) which will seek to reduce from around 1600 to 400 the number of providers of criminal legal aid services. Solicitors will be allocated to legally-aided defendants (removing true choice) and the main financial driver for such firms will be achievement of a large throughput of cases. I would not expect lawyers working for such firms to be anything like high-earners and it will be the management of the firms which is creaming off the profits. These businessmen will be the true Fat Cats. (I am sure that we will see firms obtaining contracts and then their owners selling those businesses for big returns. This has already happened in other areas such as Translation Services).
The numerous responses are responsible even if highly critical. Their good sense is to be contrasted to the petulant, ill-considered and unresearched comment in some of the daily tabloids with their undoubted anti-human rights, anti-anything-Europe, anti-lawyer (unless they need one) agenda.
IF the responses are properly read, they will be found to contain a wealth of constructive ideas as to where money could be saved. For instance, Very High Cost Criminal Cases are a concern. (Often, these cases are criminal cases of high complexity meriting the very best lawyers). The Bar Council's response (para 53) suggests that the present scheme for such cases might be replaced by a Graduated Fee Scheme (GFS) - explained more fully in Annex 2 of their response. It is therefore risible for Lord McNally to suggest that the legal profession is unwilling to engage in constructive dialogue with the Ministry about costs. It is simply untrue.
Finally, let me deal with the FAT CATS. The profession has to be more ready to acknowledge that they do exist. Of course they exist and I say, be up front about them. Some Queen's Counsel will earn well into a 6 figure income though much of this is frequently from privately funded work and, for some, a large element may well be from legal aid in very high cost cases (see VHCC Accreditation). The legal profession is NOT opposing reform in this area as the Bar Council's response makes crystal clear. Any reform will inevitably reduce lawyer's income but there will always be very difficult and lengthy cases and these merit suitable recognition in the fee structure given the work involved and the expertise required. Also, let's be honest here, the government is not proposing any cuts to its own level of representation - particularly in those cases (such as prosecutions for terrorism) where it has a definite interest in the outcome. Furthermore, the income of most lawyers is at a 'grey moggy' level and is, in a lot of instances, at a level where the lawyer himself would qualify financially for legal aid under the Grayling proposals! The low financial returns for most legally-aided criminal work are driving lawyers out of either this type of work or even out of the profession - see This is what is happening to honest hard working legal aid lawyers, and why - Criminal Bar Association 12th June.
The outcome of the consultation (which closed on 4th June) is awaited. It is to be hoped that the matter can be resolved by mutual co-operation but my fat cat is not holding his breath.
Everything that is wrong with PCT ........... please read !! (Thanks to Criminal Bar Association)
Charon QC - This is what is happening to honest hard-working legal aid lawyers, and why
Justice Committee hearing on 11th June