Lord McNally gave his first speech last week on legal aid since taking over the legal aid brief in the reshuffle. Hats off to him for braving the lion’s den that was the Legal Aid Practitioners Group annual conference – something of a baptism of fire. Legal aid practitioners were never going to be his biggest fans, given his leadership of the government’s much-despised legal aid reforms through the Lords.

McNally clearly wanted to move on from the period prior to the Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act receiving royal assent, saying the bill’s passage had been ‘bruising for everyone concerned’.

His speech was more of an attempt to restore bridges with the profession than to provide a detailed timetable of changes. McNally pledged to listen and engage with practitioners and representative bodies during the act’s implementation.

So, he got his speech out of the way OK, but the trouble came responding to questions from those pesky legal aid practitioners, who wanted to know awkward practical details, for example, about who would pay for experts’ reports to establish whether someone has suffered domestic abuse (no one seemingly), or what contingency money there is in the legal aid budget for unexpected large class actions.

Here both McNally and his colleagues from the Legal Services Commission were left sometimes scratching their heads a few times.

But it was when a Bristol solicitor asked about the adequacy of the number of firms able to do education law (three apparently) that McNally caused a collective sharp intake of breath from the assembled delegates.

The Liberal Democrat peer questioned why a disabled child would need a ‘lifetime of legal help’, suggesting that they would not need a lawyer in order to get their special educational needs met. The assembled crowd was, to a person, shocked by the justice minister’s naivety.

Once the questioner, Beverly Watkins, had retrieved her chin from the ground, she pointed out that as children grow up and develop their needs change. But cash-strapped local authorities do not willingly bend over backwards to use their resources to ensure children with disabilities and a myriad of special educational needs get their needs meet in a manner that will allow them to thrive. And, is it only those children with the most doughty and indefatigable parents who stand any hope at all without the help of a lawyer.

Local authorities, she pointed out, do not consider giving people their rights or public services a priority, but are more focused on saving money.

Watkins cited instances of children who have spent years out of education because local authorities had failed to meet their specific educational needs, and a 13-year-old still languishing in primary school because appropriate schooling had not been provided.

Lawyers, she said, are never parents’ first option, they only come to them, if they still have the will, when they have no other option.

McNally said that he wanted to listen and there will be no shortage of people willing to take him up on that. This could be a steep learning curve.

Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette

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