Guest Blog by Oliver Kirk (@Kirkabout)
Today, 16th July, I met with Laura Sandys MP in the lobby of Portcullis House.
I attended both in my capacity as her constituent and also a representative of Kent Law Society. It had originally been envisaged that Mr Oliver Saxby, Queens Counsel, would also be present in his capacity as Chair of the Kent Bar Mess to make representations on their behalf. Sadly, he was unable to attend, but gave me a useful checklist of matters to be raised.
The meeting lasted about 45 minutes and the impression that I gained was that there is genuine concern about the effect that PCT might have, we are operating in an environment where cuts are a given. I am afraid that she did tell me that we have the “most expensive legal aid system in the world” but I have put her right on that, and will send her the report that proves the point.
Our starting point, notwithstanding Mr Grayling budget already being fixed by the Treasury was : “why the MOJ”? Other budgets are ring-fenced and there is great wate which could have been cut to acieve the savings imposed on the MOJ. Examples were health and international development. Laura Sandys pointed out the the ID budget could be entirely cut and there would still not be enough to keep the budget at its current level. OK replies that it isn’t a case of either/or, but a question of finding saving from here and there.
The MOJ budget for legal aid is NOT spiralling out of control. Down from £2.1 bn to 1.9 and criminal spend down from 1.13bn to £975 million. These figures do not take into account the further considerable saving that are only just coming through following LASPO – including the abolition of committals- which is likely to result in significant savings of resources both from the CPS, the prison service and defence point of view.
We have not had a pay rise since 1997. Which other public servants can say that? Do we want to still be saying that in 10 or 15 years time? Certainly not!
There are other areas where saving could be made within the MOJ. The waste caused by the Interpreter debacle, prisoner delivery, the wasteful tagging contracts entered into with G4S and Serco for tagging of prisoners (also an example of poor Govt procurement).
We have already made huge cuts to staff and to the service that we deliver to try to remain profitable. There is little or no scope for us to absorb further cuts. We are also looking to be efficient by being able to work remotely and paperless. BUT look at the report into the CPS and what happens if this sort of thing is rushed or underresourced- there will be serious consequences as cuts will affect service- delivery.
There is no room in the solicitors profession for us to absorb cuts of a minimum of 17.5%. We do not operate at that level of profitability.
Fat cat lawyers are a myth. Most legal aid solicitors earn less than £40K a year. The average is only £25K which is much less than most might think. Cuts of 17.5% would cause market failure and we would not recover from that. There would have to be considerable reforms to be able to achieve those sorts of savings- reforms of the system as a whole. Any such reforms should be properly discussed with the professions, and proper time given to allow for any structural changes that might need to be made.
PCT was not the way to deliver those savings. Now that choice has been conceded, doesn’t that undermine the entire PCT argument, since the MOJ can no longer guarantee quantity of work?
Laura Sandys points out that there is in any event no guarantee of work. Investigation and prosecution of crime will always bring about varying levels of demand.
We discuss the stratural problems that there are now. An over-supply of duty solicitors many of whom do not in fact work- or even live in the UK! This has perverted the market and lead to the duty solicitor slot becoming worthless. The related problem of new entrants to the Profession was touched upon. Who, leaving university with debts of £60K is going to want to work for the current derisory rates (or worse). This is storing up trouble for the future.
Advocates fees: point out that 28% cuts in last few years.
Proposals for front loading and incentivising guilty pleas are likely to undermine D’s confidence in the advice he is receiving.
Tapered fees punish advocates for long complex cases. It is not the defence fault that there is a long prosecution case! Advocates do not cause delays- and the Bar are collating evidence to present to the MOJ on that subject. It is insulting to suggest that advocates defending serious should be paid as little as £14 a day- when even the upper figures are only in the low hundreds. The fees are derisory.
We moved on to discuss policing. Toomany officers attending court when not called to give evidence.
Undercharging. Failing to prosecute serious offences. The recent HMIC report into Kent Police.
If there are savings to be made, this can be achieved through efficiencies not by cutting lawyers fees.
If fees to be cut- look again at VHCC. Accounts for large % of budget. The level of fees is far far higher than “standard rates” which frequently result in a loss.
Consider introducing a “legal aid surcharge” on convicted defendants. To be enforced like the victim surcharge. What could be the objection to making those convicted of crime subject to a “tax” post conviction?
Stop the system of refusing to reimburse non -legally aided defendants costs. Do not “force” people to apply for legal aid, and then complain that the budget is too high!
This is not EVERYTHING. We also talked about choice and other things- but I didn’t have a “noting junior”!