Engaging with government on criminal legal aid reform worked to the benefit of Law Society members. But we still have a long way to go.
Our profession is facing one of the toughest periods in memory. Just as solicitors up and down the country are grappling with the most challenging economic climate for a generation, some of us are coming under sustained attack from a government with an agenda of increasingly deep cuts.
The Law Society campaigned against the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 proposals by building alliances with civil society organisations, protesting loudly and, sad to say, pretty much totally failing to change the government’s mind.
The April consultation proposals from the Ministry of Justice on criminal legal aid were a fundamental threat to the sustainability of the criminal justice system and the legal aid lawyers who keep the show on the road. We could not risk repeating the LASPO high-energy, inclusive, uplifting, but ultimately unsuccessful campaign and see the proposals implemented in full.
That is why the Law Society took the approach of campaigning publicly against these cuts, while also engaging directly with the heart of government in order to secure changes where we could. We have presented clear evidence, demonstrating that these proposals threaten the public and the profession and we have proposed a better way forward.
I was president when this approach was adopted; I thought it was right then and I think it is right now: I know it was this approach that secured the abandonment of price-competitive tendering proposals which would have seen 1,200 legal firms go to the wall. In doing so, we ensured client choice and high quality will remain at the heart of our legal system, and sent a lucid message to the government: the profession will not stand by as English law is sold to the lowest bidder.
Some have suggested that we shouldn’t have engaged in influencing the government to secure the changes we have. I disagree. This would have left our members high and dry as the ministry ploughed on with cuts and price-competition regardless. This year alone as part of direct engagement with government we have given evidence to 14 separate committee inquiries on a range of issues. The Society has been referenced in 167 different parliamentary debates.
We still have a long way to go, and a lot of work to do. We must show it is an affront to justice that a single fee should be paid regardless of the plea of the defendant; that it is uneconomical for a single fixed fee to be paid no matter what the local conditions; that it is inappropriate and damaging for there to be no escape fees for the most serious police station cases.
Above all, we must go on making the case that if we are to continue to have a world-leading justice system, the payment arrangements must be sufficient for talented, dedicated lawyers to believe they have a future in this field.
I’ve seen the motion of no confidence, and I sympathise with the frustrations of solicitors who stand to be hit by the government’s proposals. But the Society is using every lever at its disposal to fight this fight, and turning on each other now only weakens our position in the face of a government which has made it clear that, given the chance, it will not stop here.
That is why I’ll be opposing the motion of no confidence on December 17, and will be supporting the Law Society in its continued efforts to fight for further change to the worst of what is being proposed.
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff was president of the Law Society in 2012/13. She is managing partner of Scott-Moncrieff and Associates Ltd