Solicitors are starting to feel impatient over a decision on alternatives to fee cuts.
It’s been a month since practitioner groups presented Ministry of Justice officials with four options to consider in terms of alternative savings to a second 8.75% fee cut introduced on 1 July.
They were told the lord chancellor would be briefed on the options the following week and no further meeting was required.
Given this discussion took place in the August silly season, it wasn’t a surprise (to me, anyway) that no announcement was made before the end of the summer holiday.
But, as I said at the start, it’s now been a month since that meeting took place. Michael Gove is definitely back because I saw him on Parliament TV on Tuesday morning, answering justice questions.
So it’s not surprising that some solicitors - particularly those angry that their nationwide legal aid boycott was suspended after 52 days as a ‘goodwill gesture’ to the ministry - are starting to feel impatient.
Why have we not heard anything about the fee cut, some solicitors are asking? Did the practitioner groups make a mistake suspending the action before the ministry had announced anything, even more solicitors are asking?
Matters are not helped by the fact they are also waiting to find out if they have successfully bid for one of a reduced number of legal aid contracts. They are supposed to be told this month but the ministry won’t give an exact date. (My money’s on firms being told at 4:59pm on Friday 25 September.)
Matters are also not helped on hearing justice minister Lord Faulks tell the House of Lords on Monday night that the government pressed ahead with its criminal legal aid reforms because 'the level of interest in duty contracts, knowing the likely reduction in fees, suggested there remained an appetite to undertake criminal legal aid work under the new regime’.
This is a bit like saying that because my morning train is packed commuters have an appetite for catching it.
The mood among solicitors at present, to put it kindly, is bad. So, as we head into the weekend, pretty much knowing that we won’t hear anything on either the second fee cut or the contracts today, let me leave you with a small bit of positivity to take into the weekend.
Two months ago, Gove told the justice select committee he hoped he could work with the Criminal Bar Association leadership to address a number of ‘perfectly legitimate’ concerns. While he gushed about the CBA leadership, solicitors, as far as the Gazette could tell, got only one mention during the one-and-a-half-hour session.
suggesting there is an appetite for reforms is like saying that because my morning train is packed commuters have an appetite for catching it
Fast-forward to Tuesday’s justice questions in the House of Commons, Gove used the session as an opportunity to thank the leadership of both the criminal solicitors profession and the criminal bar.
Explaining to MPs that they had taken action over ‘legitimate’ concerns about the government’s legal aid reforms, Gove thanked them for ‘constructive dialogue’ that meant ‘we are now in talks to ensure that access to justice can be enhanced and, at the same time, that the quality of advocacy improves’.
Gove’s thanks, to me, feel like progress, and were perhaps achieved by the gesture of goodwill solicitors showed to the ministry on 21 August. Like I said, it’s only a small bit of positivity.
Monidipa Fouzder is a Gazette reporter