Reports in the press regarding the startling and depressingly low level of public access to lawyers highlight what we have all known for years. Only about 15% of the public can afford to pay the hourly private rates of legal firms. This is a complete disgrace.
The causes are arguable, but above all I put this down to the entirely unfair rates of legal aid persisting over many years and governments. As an illustration, I discovered recently that the hourly rate for Green Form advice in 1982 was £22 per hour. Unbelievably, this has increased to only £51 over 34 years. Imagine what the rate would be if it had simply kept pace with inflation?
The persistent suppression of legal aid rates has inevitably resulted in the private rate galloping away so that a chasm yawned, resulting in fewer and fewer firms practising legal aid in any form. Had this chasm not opened up, the private rate would not have needed to rocket like it has.
No one in their right mind could argue that £51 per hour on the one hand and £200-£250 on the other for the same work can possibly be fair or acceptable.
The brutal truth is that the rich can pay; the poor invade the courts in person for nothing, as they are ‘fee-exempt’; and the middle-earner is (as ever) totally disadvantaged.
Which brings me to the hourly rate. From a client’s viewpoint, this is a licence to print money – an open cheque book. To claw back the middle-of-the-road punter, there has to be give and take.
A fixed fee is one obvious answer. There is risk for both lawyer and client, but it is better to have the work even if sometimes you lose out.
I am of course teaching my grandmother to suck eggs, but there have to be ways to cover the needs of those middle-earners; or we will perpetuate ‘partial law’ and fail the majority of the public.
John Greenwood, Chippenham