As Parliament is off on its summer holiday (lucky for some), I thought the time was appropriate to reflect on what some of you think about the Government’s proposed legal aid reform, ‘Transforming Legal Aid’. The purpose of this blog is to gain a perspective and clear vision of your views, and potential ideas for a stronger / better reform than the one currently proposed. I understand most views will be different, but as they say “it’s good to talk”.
Twitter has played a huge role in communicating and reporting during the Save UK Justice campaign, so I decided to send out a tweet asking if anyone would like to participate in a Q&A.
I’d like to thank everyone who took part. The contributors responded to that tweet and their answers are below. Responses are posted with permission. Please could you respect the contributors’ opinions and post constructive comments only.
Please feel free to post your answers by way of comment below, or contact me and I could publish on your behalf. I hope you find the answers insightful.
Researcher, writer and blogger, also trains in drugs, alcohol and crime http://www.russellwebster.com/
Director at Kent Defence, leading Criminal Law firm in the South East http://www.kentdefence.co.uk/
12 year old Blogger and aspiring law student http://thatgirlwholikespolitics.blogspot.co.uk/
Tuckers Solicitors, BFG dealing with crime and civil rights http://www.tuckerssolicitors.com/
Barrister at 2 Dr Johnson’s Building, Criminal and Immigration Law http://danbunting.wordpress.com/
Criminal Barrister at St Ives Chambers, Birmingham http://stiveschambers.co.uk/
Interested in law https://twitter.com/loftus_pam
Gay woman with a passion for news, justice, politics and sport https://twitter.com/opinion8ed_dyke
Criminal lawyer and part time Judge https://twitter.com/OBSlawyer
Q1. Which parts, if any, of the Government’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation paper, do you agree with?
Nick Jones: I agree with the MOJ’s analysis that the current supplier base could not absorb the proposed cuts without a significant degree of market consolidation. I do not agree with their proposed solutions.
Charli: I don’t agree with any of them. Many will destroy the logistics and thought of the country as well as legal aid. Some weren’t fair to many and some were even pointless, they wouldn’t help anything or anyone.
Franklin Sinclair: Very little. I like the idea of deciding how many firms are needed for each area, I like the use of CJA’s. I like the end of “cherry pickers”. I hate any competition based on price.
Dan Bunting: None. There’s normally something in a government plan that you can support, but not this time.
Peter Cooper: That it would be desirable for the trial advocate to be properly attended by an instructing solicitor’s representative in all Crown Court trials (subject however to the solicitor being properly remunerated).
Pam Loftus: None. I think Legal Aid and its administration needs reforming but not in the way the MOJ are suggesting. I can see their reasoning on reducing the income level at which LA can be claimed – the ‘we are all in this together’ cry, but £37,500 joint family income may in some circles be thought unreasonable. The residential qualification for claiming Legal Aid of one year seems harsh. The right of choice of legal representation has been discussed at length and who knows whether that will now be included in the Bill. But as in all other areas, choice seems to be a distinct clarion call, I really don’t understand why it was eliminated in this instance. The same fee for a ‘guilty’ plea as for a case caused by pleading ‘not guilty’ makes no sense and will lead to miscarriages of justice and employed lawyers fulfilling targets. MTQC could suggest savings and improvements to the System which needs a complete overhaul.
Regarding PCT – Putting contracts out to tender in the way it is proposed is tantamount to wiping out all small criminal law firms. Big firms do not have the same ethos as small ones which are normally run on a shoe string by dedicated professionals with missionary zeal. The whole plan is ridiculous. Government choice when it comes to awarding contracts is not good and justice is not an area where you would want firms like G4S, Serco taking over – look at the examples of what has happened in the areas they have been awarded contracts in already. The whole idea is to give the system over to the supermarkets. They did the same under Margaret Thacher to the Optical profession. They deregulated the selling of spectacles. That lead to the supermarkets and big business becoming involved. Pre 1982 there was one optical multiple D & A, now there are many. Every High Street has its Specsavers, Vison Express, Optical Express, and every supermarket has its Optical Department. There are very few independent optical practices left. The profession has not been improved by these changes.
David Osborne: Only really the part on a cap for legal aid. Disposable income of £37.5k means an actual income closer to £100k. Doesn’t seem unreasonable that they should have to pay.
Q2. What is your biggest fear is Government’s proposals were to go ahead?
Russell Webster: I have two main concerns. Firstly, that defendants won’t be able to access good quality legal representation and there will be (more) miscarriages of justice. Secondly, that those interested in a career in the law will not want to do legal aid work, further damaging the quality of legal representation available.
Nick Jones: My biggest fear is that many of the best criminal solicitors will be driven out of business and our country’s internationally respected criminal justice system is handed over to a handful of corporations (G4S, capita etc) that have no experience of the challenging work of a criminal defence lawyer.
Charli: My biggest fear is justice for the current generation, the next (mine) and all generations after that. Mr. Grayling doesn’t seem to have thought about the amount of people his proposals will affect. Also, it will be harder to become a lawyer, and there will be no choice or quality of your lawyer, either.
Franklin Sinclair: A tender on price.
Dan Bunting: For the public at large there will be a two tier justice system. It won’t happen overnight, but will be a gradual but inevitable move to a situation where there will be a few rich people who buy the best and everyone else pleads out as in the US. This will be compounded by the fact that the CPS are facing further cuts despite the fact that they are pretty much falling apart. For myself, I will, in reality, no longer be able to afford to work as a lawyer.
Peter Cooper: That the only way to make a profit as a solicitor would be by cutting corners and setting stringent targets for the number of guilty pleas, which would be utterly contrary to the interests of the lay client; that the only work in the Crown Court which will be profitable will be guilty pleas, which will have the same effect; and that all the profitable work will be denied to the independent Bar, which will be driven to extinction.
Pam Loftus: I have worked in my own business, sold out to a Multiple and then continued working at the same location, doing the same job and the Modus Operandi of big business compared to that of the small entrepreneur is mind boggling. Big business is all about fulfilling targets, selling products, harassing the clients on the data base, deluging the client list with mail drops, sending members of staff out to market on the street (although Karen Todner does this already). The standard of work produced is awful, staff employed have no zeal, no interest except to generate sales to fulfill targets to earn bonuses. If PCT goes ahead, then contracts will go to supermarket type firms, Stobarts, Tescos and Tuckers. The future looks grim.
opinion8ed_dyke: Loss of access to fair justice.
David Osborne: Personally, that we wouldn’t get a contract. More broadly, that they would procure the very worst service, cost the taxpayer even more overall and leave clients and the courts badly serviced.
Q3. What is your opinion on the Law Society’s proposed alternatives?
Nick Jones: They represent a vast improvement on the MOJ’s plan. They would enable firms to continue to compete on quality of service and reputation. Much has been said about sole practitioners being “sold down the river” but the Law Society’s plan would allow them to band together or join other firms. The move to eliminate “ghost” duty solicitors is very welcome. More controversial is the proposal to break the link between the allocation of work and the duty solicitor. Where you stand on that debate largely depends on your own position. I can understand why employed duty solicitors are fearful of this undermining their “value” to firms. However it does not make economic sense to require firms to employ more duty solicitors than they have work for just to gain access to the duty work. It pushes up the cost of providing the service.
Charli: Although I don’t understand them entirely, and probably haven’t read them very thoroughly, they seem like balanced alternatives.
Franklin Sinclair: It has its merits but it doesn’t consolidate the market quickly enough and if MOJ insists on cuts then it is inadequate for the Big Firms survival. I very much applaud the Duty Solicitor proposals.
Dan Bunting: There are two major objections. Firstly that it was made at all. There was no mandate for this to be done on behalf of all the people that were lined up in opposition. Even if this was the best counter-proposal imaginable (and it is not) then it still fails the first test – it is a proposal that will have a hugely negative impact on many firms who would not support it.
In terms of the proposals, there are several major flaws. The abolition of duty solicitors means the loss of key marker of quality. It does restrain firms (particularly the big firms) which is why the BFG have been itching to get rid of duties for years, in the sense that it requires a firm not to be too ‘paralegal heavy’. Given the huge risks from further cuts this is dangerous. It also will hit many freelancers very hard.
A further problem is that this essentially freezes the market and, whilst there is no theoretical barrier to new entrants, without the duty scheme in its current form, it will be impossible for new entrants to come into the market, which is damaging. Those are the major problems, but there are further flaws with the proposals.
Peter Cooper: There is no reason why the smallest firms should not continue. Many have very efficient business models. The Law Society should not be compromising. Meeting with Grayling in his weakest hour was a huge tactical mistake. They should have waited until after he had been mauled by the Justice Select Committee. They need a few lessons in how to play poker.
Pam Loftus: The TLS appears to have ‘got into bed’ with Tuckers and ‘screwed’ its members but I could be wrong. I was impressed by LSM at the Justice Committee although I did think MM and MT were better, but horrified to hear what subsequently was said to have happened. Having seen one episode of ‘Briefs’ this last week, it was like viewing the Apocalypse of the legal profession. The lawyers looked as if they were refugees from Eastern Europe and couldn’t really be distinguished from their clients. The whole feel of the programme was seedy! If Tuckers are the way forward, God help us!
opinion8ed_dyke: Hmm, you mean the lifeline thrown to Grayling when he was on the ropes? Incompetent timing, if not malicious intent to derail #SaveUKJustice
David Osborne: I’m generally in favour. I don’t think it’s a disaster for any firm other than a single practitioner. The work and fees have declined and we need to be able to restructure our businesses. It is bad news for employed duty solicitors though.
Q4. What advice would you give to students who wish to become part of the legal field, and in particular, legal aid sector?
Nick Jones: I find myself giving the following advice on a regular basis to students on work experience. Think very hard about it. It is not like the TV. The hours are long and the clients can be challenging. The size of the budget is and will fall further and it is extremely difficult to make a living in an area where too many lawyers are chasing too little work.
Charli: Not sure. I want to become a law student in about 6 years time myself.
Franklin Sinclair: If the Ministry of Justice manage to reduce the number of firms to a minimum of 400 and then the survivors get a significant increase in volume we can have a proper, sustainable supplier base of large well organised firms with a solid infrastructure. Then I would say to them, “Come and join us, it’s the best job in the world and the future is bright”.
Dan Bunting: Don’t. It’s as simple as that (if you want to do legal aid). The situation is already dire and, whatever happens in relation to the current proposals, will only get worse. This is on top of the fact that it is already very competitive. If was a student now (knowing what I now know) there is no way I would come into this profession.
Peter Cooper: This is vital work. Have faith and keep going. I and others will do all in our power to defeat this ill-informed and unprincipled Justice Secretary and to preserve a legal aid sector for you to work in in future. If we win, as we must, he and his successors will know that the profession is not a pushover and can muster powerful public support.
Pam Loftus: If you want to study Law fine, but make sure you study an area which is profitable, commercial, insurance, contract, company, any sort of law except criminal law. It costs so much money to qualify, it takes so much hard work to study and keep up to date, it is so difficult to find a pupilage training contract, it is so hard to become a tenant/partner, and at the end of the day, there is no financial reward, the only increase is in your overdraft and debt. The problem is that no one believes that Criminal Law is so badly paid.
David Osborne: Be realistic, don’t get too far into debt and only go for it if you really have a chance to succeed. Otherwise ok. Things look worse for those of us who are used to a better standard of living.
Q5. Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling has recently “u-turned” on client choice. Would you agree that it is a tactical move and, actually, a red herring?
Nick Jones: The timing was certainly tactical. You could see that it took the wind out of the sails of the Justice Select Committee. What is bizarre is the failure to recognise that the removal of equal contract sizes makes PCT a dead proposition. How can firms bid on price when they have no idea how much work they are going to get? I suspect that the whole proposal is a red herring designed to pave the way for large administrative cuts and a reduction of firms based on current contract size.
Charli: Mr. Grayling is probably doing this so he can look like the good guy and pulling it as a tactic. Therefore, more people will agree to his proposals. In a 12 year old’s eyes, however, this probably won’t work and isn’t a very good tactic.
Franklin Sinclair: Definitely not. He was forced to do it because there was such an outcry against it, even from his own party and from the judiciary. It rather scuppers his plans for PCT but his officials as we speak are trying to design another version of PCT with client choice.
Dan Bunting: Yes, it was always a non-starter and most thought that it would get abandoned somewhere along the line. It has worked, in that it has rattled the Law Society enough to put forwards proposals that will also lead to PCT in due course.
Peter Cooper: This was indeed a tactical move by a man who knew he was beaten and was desperately trying to limit the damage. The initial consultation paper made clear that the only way more money could be clawed back from the legal profession was by introducing PCT, with successful bidders receiving guaranteed levels of work, through removal of client choice. Since removal of client choice has been proved to be politically and legally unacceptable, and since the MoJ accept that no more money can be clawed back, they must find savings elsewhere. Sacking Ursula Brennan and Chris Grayling himself would be a terrific start. Cutting by 10% the sum paid to G4S and Serco would more than cover the rest of the savings which it is claimed are necessary.
Pam Loftus: I wouldn’t believe a word that man said. I can’t see how he can give client choice if work can only be given to firms, who have been awarded contracts (PCT), but that could be the choice, not another choice from the firm you have been assigned but the choice of another firm who has a contract. It’s common practice these days if you have an insurance claim that the insurer actually instructs a firm of his choosing to do your work, you have no say in the matter and you have paid the premium. Legal Aid is seen by the public as financing criminals. They don’t see it as protecting the wrongly accused. It was certainly a political decision taken to avoid flack from the Justice Committee. We all know if PCT and Legal Aid reforms are nodded through without Parliamentary Debate that CG will get the terms he wants as there will be no one diluting the toxic mixture he is distilling. It still beggars belief that he was made Lord Chancellor in the first place!
opinion8ed_dyke: A false choice is no choice. I can choose to shop at any supermarket I want. But if there’s only a Tesco that I can access, where’s the choice?
David Osborne: It’s both. Tactically astute because a) it removes a great principled objection and b) we can’t now complain about standards because we said choice would ensure it. I do think PCT can’t function without guaranteed volume though.