City firm representatives will meet the Ministry of Justice today to discuss controversial plans to plug the justice funding gap.
The Law Society has already criticised one measure being considered by the lord chancellor, which is a levy on top-echelon firms to replace the criminal court charge on defendants. Society president Jonathan Smithers described the concept as a ‘tax on success’.
Today’s meeting follows months of discussion between the government and City of London Law Society after lord chancellor Michael Gove first suggested in June that more could be done by ‘the most successful in the legal profession to help protect justice for all’.
He told the House of Commons at the time: ‘One thing that struck me is that there are people in senior solicitors’ firms and in our best chambers who are not doing enough, given how well they have done out of the legal system, to support the very poorest – they need to do more.’
His plans received a cool reception. Many City lawyers pointed out that they already conduct pro bono work. They also criticised the principle of imposing a financial levy on firms to pay for something which exists for the good of society.
The Gazette understands nevertheless that City lawyers and the government have been working towards finding common ground between their two positions.
David Hobart, chief executive of the City of London Law Society, said the roundtable was something both sides had been working on ‘for a long time’. He added: ‘We have worked our way towards something that London law firms and the Ministry of Justice are expecting to find quite useful.’
But the MoJ showed no signs of wavering on its position ahead of the meeting. The Gazette understands that representatives from Hogan Lovells and the Law Society are among those who will be present.
A spokesperson said: ‘As the justice secretary said in June, we have a two-nation justice system at present.
‘The wealthy, international class can access the “gold standard” of British justice, while everyone else has to put up with a creaking outdated system.
‘Those who have benefited financially need to do more to protect access to justice for all and we are discussing with the profession how this can be taken forward.’
The Law Society warned that any tax on the legal profession could damage the sector.
Smithers said: ‘Singling out the legal profession to pay a levy on top of the tax they pay as businesses could damage the legal sector’s competitiveness and thereby [England and Wales’] international standing as the jurisdiction of choice.
‘An additional tax on solicitors may prompt firms to consider whether to continue to operate out of England and Wales, which may have an impact on the wider UK economy.’
He added: ‘The government’s policy on the criminal courts charge is failing as it attempts to charge the poorest and often most vulnerable people in society amounts which they cannot afford to pay. Therefore, to suggest monies generated by a levy will merely replace monies which would have been generated by the criminal courts charge is nonsensical.’