A week is a long time in politics. As regards legal aid, the last week has borne that out. In fact, every week since the Ministry of Justice published its Transforming Legal Aid consultation in April has been something of a roller-coaster ride.
The campaign against the cuts and changes has been extraordinary. Solicitors and barristers came together in a way I have not seen before, with protests across the country, and excellent contributions from the Law Society, Bar Council and criminal lawyers’ groups.
In London, on 22 May an incredible rally outside Westminster in the morning was followed by a passionate meeting at Friends House in the afternoon. The 4 June saw an equally vibrant protest outside the MoJ.
The actions of individuals, lobbying and writing to MPs, have also been immense. One solicitor in particular deserves special mention – Exeter solicitor Rachel Bentley who started an online petition against the reforms and initiated the ‘minute of unity’ outside courts.
Consultation responses from not only the representative groups, but senior judges, children’s charities and campaigning groups, warning against the impact of the changes, have received growing media publicity.
Deputy prime minister Nick Clegg spoke out against the removal of client choice, and the Conservative attorney general, Dominic Grieve, also appeared to side with the profession.
At the end of last week, the campaign appeared to have reached something of a climax. In a commons debate, MPs, including high-profile Tories, spoke against the plans and shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan promised an opposition day debate on the government’s proposals, with a vote.
Last Friday, Bentley’s petition passed 100,000 signatures, which could then trigger a debate in parliament.
Despite the seismic changes faced by the profession and more importantly, the damaging impact of the reforms on vulnerable clients and the public at large, the mood from campaigners, so far as I could judge, seemed positive.
So Chris Grayling’s announcement on Monday that he had decided to retain client choice (the removal of which had been regarded as one of the most egregious of the government’s proposals) might have been cause for at least a degree of momentary relief.
But it coincided with the Law Society’s revelation that it had shared with the ministry its alternative proposals for price-competitive tendering. And that seemed to trigger at least a temporary blip in the unity that the profession had displayed thus far.
Having spoken to many solicitors and barristers over the past week, the only thing I could discern is that some agree with the Society’s engagement and others do not.
The proposals seem pragmatic and sensible - if you accept the proposition that it is appropriate for the government to interfere with the way private business operates. Which many do not.
(As an aside, Grayling asserted that PCT would allow the market to set the price. But his very rationale for not simply making an administrative cut is that the market could not cope with the fee level. One might think that indicates that the highest price that the government said it would accept was, according to the market, set too low.)
The chairman of the Law Society’s criminal law committee Richard Atkinson set out the reasons for the Law Society’s actions, and I do not intend to recite them here.
I simply make a couple of observations. First, the Law Society’s stance on the proposals and how it said it would seek to engage with the government has been clear.
Law Society Council papers stated that the Society would not:
- call for a strike;
- boycott the ministry;
- rule out competitive tendering; or
- overestimate the prospects of changing the government’s mind
It may be that they are at odds with the motions passed at the Friends House meeting, when those present unanimously voted to reject PCT and fee cuts. And that they are at odds with the position of the Bar Council and the Criminal Bar Association.
But, while the Society states that representatives of other groups were present at the Law Society’s meeting to draft its alternatives, Chancery Lane has been clear that they are its proposals alone.
Indeed, since Monday, all the other representative groups have been noticeably hushed.
It would be a shame and a real missed opportunity if the unity that the profession has thus far exhibited, and which has been one its strongest weapons, is lost.
You don’t need me to tell you that in past struggles with the government, the profession has tended to lose because it has allowed itself to fall for the ‘divide and rule’ strategy that successive governments have played.
Grayling sought to take advantage of that in his evidence on Wednesday, taking every opportunity to castigate the bar and drive a wedge between the interests of the two professions.
I accept that there are, to a degree, competing interests and different ideal goals for barristers and solicitors and between different types of solicitors’ practice, but, as in court, aren’t the interests of the two professions the same? The interests of justice and the interests of their clients.
Once the dust has settled a bit and the profession has digested the Law Society’s proposals, I hope that the unity shown thus far will continue and the force of the arguments advocated will work to secure the best solution for the profession, the public and the justice system.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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