The principal lesson of the financial crash – that markets are not always the best solution for all areas of society – appears lost on Jack Straw (see  Gazette, 12 March, 1). As trillions of pounds are thrown at banks, it seems that legal aid practitioners must pay the price for economic disaster.
To justify further cuts, Mr Straw pretends that the legal aid budget is out of control when in fact expenditure has fallen consistently since 2003. He refers to the danger of our being ‘over-lawyered’ when the number of legal aid firms is collapsing. Some 3,500 offices provided criminal legal aid services in 2001. The number of solicitors’ offices under contract at September 2005 was 2,651.
He also makes bogus international comparisons, citing Germany at €4 per capita, when this figure entirely excludes criminal legal aid provided by the individual states. He ignores the fact that France under President Sarkozy plans to bring the criminal system closer to Anglo-American common law. He cites New Zealand as spending less, when closer analysis reveals little to choose between the legal aid rates of our respective countries, even if the scope is different. It does not build confidence in the government’s vision if it insists on distorting the facts.
What is the government’s vision? Distant and huge legal factories manned by under-qualified staff. What happened to the government’s pledge to help small businesses? Have they learned nothing from our history of appalling miscarriages of justice?
Mr Straw has failed to grasp the complex role of defence solicitors. It is very different from that of Crown Prosecution Service dedicated caseworkers (DCWs), who mainly read prepared case summaries.
Our work involves absorbing a great deal of written material very quickly. This must be translated for the benefit of the client into understandable concepts, and a view rapidly formed of the applicable law. Then any number of complex tactical decisions must be taken and, in contrast to DCWs, without adjourning for advice.
There are also worrying implications in respect of wasted costs orders and claims for negligence that remote supervision would not prevent. Peer review standards require us to match the appropriately qualified fee-earner with the appropriate level of work. I know no firm that would feel safe sending caseworkers to court to fulfil the work of defence lawyers. Criminal law cannot be reduced to the level of an administrative exercise without a severe decline in the quality of justice.
The concept of local access to justice being replaced by technological innovation sounds great, but most legal aid clients cannot afford this. Also, it is incredibly difficult to obtain instructions on vast amounts of prosecution pages through camera links.
Mr Straw wants us to become like high street opticians. Yet no firm mainly charging its clients commercial private rates will touch legal aid. Specsavers can subsidise NHS patients by charging everyone else a commercial rate. There are not the numbers of private paying clients to make this viable for legal aid.
Surely a better comparison with the private market is NHS dentistry; and where is that following government ‘reforms’? Even the government has been forced to concede ‘that progress on improving access has been disappointing to date’. How understated.
It would appear that the government has an agenda which is driven by the Association of Chief Police Officers. That involves neutralising an independent legal profession whose future role will be to stand by ticking boxes while people are rushed to conviction, whether innocent or not.
Professional bodies such as the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association and the Law Society have made many practical suggestions to improve the efficiency of the criminal justice system. Mr Straw would rather ignore these and risk the destruction of the profession.
The government ‘consults’ but does not listen. Many lawyers have deep roots in their communities and are active politically on all sides of the political spectrum. The government may be hearing from them very soon.
Robin Murray is senior partner at Robin Murray & Co Solicitors and a member of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association committee. These views are personal to the author