I have recently been on two courses on the forthcoming changes to the legal aid scheme. One was organised by the Law Society and the other by the Legal Services Commission. They were, more accurately, roadshows presented around the country and most were well supported. I will not say which was better as they were aiming at different things.
It was striking legal aid is referred to again as, well, legal aid. Until recently it was called public funding. Perhaps it will be ‘poor man’s lawyers’ next. This is - you might think - a very small point but it is symptomatic of one of the problems of being a legal aid lawyer. The LSC gets a bee in its bonnet about various things and they become the watchword for a few years and we as providers have to follow its thinking. Who remembers the preferred suppliers idea? What happened to that? Nothing, but we all had to troupe along to meetings on it and then it fizzled out.
One article I read recently contained the phrase, ‘now that holistic services are not government policy...’. Holistic services meant what they called ‘bundling’; the idea that a criminal client, for example, might need family or debt advice and would want to see another lawyer in the same firm. This is a perfectly reasonable approach, and I have no concerns about it but the idea appeared and then just melted away.
What about the providers who struggled to try to establish consortia to offer holistic services and had to drop out? I know it is not fault of the messenger and is a result of wider policy changes. You cannot blame the LSC for having ideas and perhaps the new Legal Aid Agency, its replacement, will be more consistent and follow them up.
I said that was one of the problems of being a legal aid lawyer. Another is the public do not care about legal aid. There are no votes in giving money to lawyers to defend the indefensible. The arguments the Society and others have valiantly made have been lost. We need a campaign to take to the next government and possibly the one after that. We will still lose the arguments but at least we can have a go.
David Pickup is a partner in Aylesbury-based Pickup & Scott