Lawyers advising or representing the government are paid significantly higher fee rates than legal aid lawyers representing ordinary citizens. What is the rationale for this? Both are essentially publicly funded lawyers, with their fees paid by the taxpayer.
The government delights in representing legal aid lawyers to the red-top papers as fat cats, milking legal aid – not a word does it say about the fees it pays to the lawyers who represent it. This ‘Snatch’ Land Rover case proves the point. I wonder how much James Eadie QC and co were paid to argue the government’s case?
There seems little justification for the difference. So, as the government is seeking to make savings, wouldn’t harmonising fee rates be a sensible cost-saving measure, instead of further cutting the fees paid to already modestly paid legal aid lawyers? Well, apparently not.
And here’s why: according to the attorney general Dominic Grieve, the work done by lawyers advising or representing the government is ‘more varied and complex’ than the work done by legal aid lawyers. This shocking assertion was made by Grieve in answer to a written question posed by Labour MP Hugh Bayley.
Bayley asked how much money could be saved by capping fees paid to government-instructed lawyers at legal aid rates, and invited the Ministry of Justice to do just that. Grieve’s strikingly honest answer lays bare the arrogance of the government, the injustice it is prepared to defend and the contempt in which it holds its many of its own citizens.
What the government is saying is that there is one set of standards for the rich and those that govern and another for the governed, particularly if they are poor. As many legal aid lawyers will attest, the work they do is hugely varied and often extremely complex and demanding.
As the chairman of the Criminal Bar Association Michael Turner QC pointed out, in a shaken-baby case he would have to cross-examine sometimes up to 20 witnesses, including ophthalmologists and endocrinologists on complex medical issues. The differential offends the notion of equality of arms – how can it be right that one side (the state) is represented by lawyers who are highly paid, while the citizen on the other side is represented by someone paid a good deal less?
As the Law Society pointed out, a direct comparison can be made in cases of clinical negligence where the government lawyer instructed by the NHS Litigation Authority to defend a claim is paid around three times as much as the legal aid lawyer appearing on the other side for the injured claimant.
Surely that is fundamentally wrong.
Further in his justification, Grieve suggested that the government needed access to the ‘best quality’ legal services. The government’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation suggests that lawyers acting for those charged with criminal offences need to be only of an ‘acceptable’ level of quality.
Again this inequality is striking; of course, the government is able to choose the lawyer it wants to represent its interest, while it is seeking to remove that ability from those who are charged with criminal offences: if the government goes ahead with its plans, individuals will be allocated a lawyer to represent them.
I suppose at least the government is not hiding its hypocrisy, but it is a deeply troubling state of affairs and one that seems will inevitably continue.
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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