Is it acceptable for the state to dictate who represents a criminal defendant? One cannot help but recall lurid headlines about US public defenders taking on too many cases to effectively defend their clients – or worse, falling asleep at counsel table during a death penalty trial.
It is of course implicit that price-competitive tendering will further inhibit access to justice; but it seems we have moved on from the luxury of debating principles. As with so many of its reforms, whether the government’s motive is genuinely financial, or simply ideological (which rings truer) is neither here nor there. These cuts (‘savings’) are going to be made.
As Chancery Lane’s policy chief Mark Stobbs argues in a Gazette blog this week, it is difficult to see how the state can guarantee the level of work that firms will need if they are to deliver ‘best value’. But solicitors cannot afford to sulk. Ministers have said they are open to suggestions, but these will need to be compelling if we are to surmount the basic assumptions that there are too many small firms and that competitive tendering is the way forward.
There are no easy answers. Cutting fees already pared to the bone could be fatal to existing providers, for example. Nevertheless, it is incumbent on the profession to engage with the Law Society’s consultation on alternatives. Solicitors owe it to clients to make the best of things.