In March Chris Grayling decided to accelerate plans for price-competitive tendering (PCT). A consultation paper came out on 9 April. I will not rehearse the content of the paper as I am sure that criminal legal aid lawyers will have read it at least twice (reading it once would not allow for a full enough understanding of the madness it perpetuates).
While the entire paper makes grim reading for anyone who has a modicum of concern for the rule of law and justice, I was particularly taken by certain aspects. First, the concern outlined for the bar and only the bar. It is ‘a well-respected part of the legal system’ and as a result the Ministry of Justice will of course ‘have due regard for the viability of the profession in reaching [its] final decision’. The MoJ must have forgotten to put into print the obvious ‘regard’ it also has for solicitors, their years of expertise and the viability of our profession – or was Grayling seeking to cause deliberate discord among the professions in an attempt to stifle united opposition?
This concern is of course overtaken by the lunacy of the proposed removal of choice of solicitor, and with it the element of professional competition and the obvious effect it will have on quality. Firms are rightly proud of their reputations, and competition is a decisive factor in maintaining quality.
I am a three years’ PQE criminal defence lawyer (duty solicitor) with higher rights of audience. To get here I went down a long and expensive road, because in criminal defence being a qualified solicitor is not enough. You also need to undertake exams and develop a portfolio to prove you are capable of advising clients at a police station, followed by exams and a portfolio to prove you are capable of advising clients as a duty solicitor at court, and more exams if you choose to become a higher rights advocate.
Why do we do it? Not for the money. While we are ultimately paid by the state, we enjoy none of the benefits of public sector employees. On average, someone in my position earns about the same as a retail manager (if not less). We are laden with debt and regularly work long hours seven days a week in often uncomfortable environments. We believe that our endeavours make a difference, and we trust in the egalitarian ability of the system to provide justice to those who require assistance, and arguably those in society who need it the most.
So when we cry out about PCT and say that, if implemented as currently proposed, justice will be the preserve of those not reliant on legal aid, we know of what we speak and we mean it. The principle of PCT is simple – to drive efficiency through economies of scale by replacing the 1,600 defence firms with 400 organisations, hopefully to achieve savings which are passed on to the government by the lowering the unit price of legal services.
How does an organisation cut the cost of providing legal services? By driving down salaries and making as many solicitors as possible redundant, and replacing them with paralegals. The MoJ suggests greater use of paralegals in the paper (paragraph 4.16). Therefore, it is obvious that in the advent of PCT I am more than likely to lose my job along with the other 5,000 in my position. What are we supposed to do as the most recent people to join the already huge mountain of unemployed? Some ‘lucky’ solicitors will obtain employment under the new regime at dramatically reduced salaries. The less fortunate, while undeniably having transferrable skills, will find themselves competing for jobs in other sectors against those with ‘relevant experience’. I suppose it is off to apply for universal credit.
After PCT is completed and contracts are awarded to the likes of Serco and Capita, and overworked, underpaid, inexperienced paralegals are doing the majority of the work, I wonder how a person at their most vulnerable will feel knowing that their appointed representative is there because that representative’s employer made the cheapest bid for the job.
Nehal Vasani is a solicitor at west London firm Stringfellow & Co