Gemma Blythe (@Gemma_Blythe), Caseworker at Kent Defence (@KentDefence) and Law Student at the University of Kent, attended Legal Aid Question Time last night, 18th June 2013. It was held at Church House – just around the corner from the Ministry of Justice offices, and the Legal Services Commission. How fitting.
The chair of the meeting was Joshua Rozenberg, ‘Britain’s best-known commentator on the law’. Trained as a lawyer before becoming a BBC journalist. He was an excellent host.
The panel included Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice, responsible for legal aid, Andy Slaughter MP, Shadow Justice Minister (@hammersmithandy), Steve Hynes, Director, Legal Action Group (@SteveHynesLAG), and Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar (@MauraMcGowanQC).
The first question was asked in relation to Lord McNally’s previous comment that the legal profession is “hysterical”. He stands by it and does not regret saying it. However, he does say that he has not come into office to destroy justice. He also states, within the first 10 minutes, that the question over legal aid cuts has not been sprung on the legal profession, but has been ongoing for a decade. He continues, our justice system is the most generous system in the world, and there is ample room for the profession to adapt.
Maura McGowan QC responds saying his comments are completely unfair. Taking 1,600 firms to just 400 is not saving money. The Bar have made sensible suggestions on how to save money and this is not the answer. We need a properly run and properly funded legal system.
Andy Slaughter MP says that with a perverse incentive for guilty pleas and removal of client choice, it is either reckless or intentional, and from your (McNally) comments, I now think it is intentional.
Joshua Rozenberg addresses Steve Hynes from Legal Action Group and asks whether he thinks the government are deliberately trying to wreck the system. Steve Hynes replies that the proposals made are technically inept and they simply won’t work.
Lord McNally comes in saying he has watched 10,000 Ministry of Justice staff go. He works for a Department who spend money on prisons, probation, staff and legal aid. They have all taken hard hits. He then goes on to blame the Labour party, who “started all this in their last year of government”.
Maura McGowan QC says this is not a battle over our wages.
Hannah Kinch, Barrister and Chairman of the Young Bar Council, asks the panel: Those from poorer social groups, and those whose parents cannot afford to finance them, how will come to the bar? She states that her father was a hospital porter, and she was the first member of her family to go to University. She did not have anyone to financially assist her, but her fees were assisted by other members of the chambers. If the proposals come in, other members will not be able to afford to bring young members through, if they are not making a living of their own. Clearly these cuts will affect equality of opportunity.
Lord McNally states put your own house in order. The problems of fees are not just because of the proposals but you need to look at the wider influences. Changes to legal aid will happen regardless of the cuts. He also states that these cuts will hit the lower end of the legal profession.
There is a gasp from the audience… but wait, it gets better.
Andy Slaughter says that these cuts will have a knock on effect throughout the profession, not just at the Bar.
Joshua Rozenberg addresses Lord McNally and asks whether this is an unintended consequence or can it be avoided?
Lord McNally responds “I don’t know about ‘avoid’.” Then he continues “You live in a bubble, you won’t convince many…”
Steve Hynes says you cannot save money by reducing 1,600 firms to just 400. You will be challenged by Judicial Review.
Later, Lord McNally says that legal aid has been a proud achievement, however, he was advised a while back “don’t buckle”. Maura McGowan says there is difference to not buckling and listening.
Gemma Blythe, of Kent Defence, then asks “The Minister has insisted that quality of representation shall be retained under the proposals. However, when staff at one MoJ road show were challenged about a fall in quality, they replied: “…if quality falls, so be it”. Which, does the panel think, is a fairer reflection of the true position?”
Joshua Rozenberg asks the panel whether quality is prominent and whether this omission has been left out when writing the consultation.
Lord McNally is the first to respond: The accusation that proposals will cut quality of legal representation is a valid point. One we need to look at. This is still at consultation stage, and we are still considering those responses. We will be liaising with the Law Society and the Bar Council, we need to talk and see how we can build on this.
Maura McGowan follows: We believe PCT to be wrong. We are not going to help design it. Our system is good and quality is a perfect aim.
Lord McNally: I hope that is not the Bar’s final position.
Maura McGowan: My advocacy skills obviously aren’t that good.
Lord McNally: We are still digesting responses. This issue is a valid one. We want to respond and engage with legal bodies about it. I have not read all 16,000 responses but this, and client choice, are raised most frequently. The idea that a 20 year career criminal should have the brief of his choice seems rather bizarre.
Maura McGowan says that a Defendant should be innocent until proven guilty. A 20 year career criminal may not have done it this time.
Joshua Rozenberg closes the debate by saying Lord McNally has been a good sport.
That’s all folks. Enjoy.