With the government set to unveil its full response to the Bellamy legal aid review, lord chancellor Dominic Raab says extra cash for solicitors is unlikely. The prospect of industrial action still looms
Next week sees publication of the government’s long-awaited full response to the Bellamy legal aid review. But lord chancellor Dominic Raab MP has dashed any hope of extra cash for solicitors, who are demanding parity of funding since colleagues at the criminal bar secured a £54m deal with Raab’s predecessor, Brandon Lewis MP, to end their long-running strike action.
First, Raab told the Commons justice select committee on Tuesday, agreeing to an ‘unsustainable’ pay rise would stoke inflation. Second, the government has already come up with a fair deal – the 15% uplift in fees ‘is well beyond the increase that many others in the public sector are getting’.
The government’s overall package for solicitors amounts to a 9% uplift, Labour MP Karl Turner reminded Raab.
‘We accepted the recommendations. I think they were balanced,’ Raab replied. ‘I don’t think the financial situation has got easier since the [Bellamy review] was published, it’s got more challenging. We need to do right by the professions. But putting more money into these areas now compared to what’s happening elsewhere in the public sector let alone the private sector, I’m just not convinced is the right thing to do.’
Raab stressed that he is willing to engage with the profession’s representative bodies. ‘What I can’t do is pretend there isn’t a very real-world choice that we face as a government in terms of the public finances and the envelope I’ve got and where that money should go. And I think if you want to make the case for more money than we committed to, tell me where it comes from. Does it come from the support that we’re providing for the victims of violent crime or indeed the victims of rape? Does it come from the drug rehabilitation money that we’re putting in and I’m trying to protect? Does it come from the money I’m putting in to reducing reoffending by dealing with homelessness for prisoners? It’s got to come from somewhere.’
'You’ve got to explain where the over £50m is going to come from. On the other hand, it having been settled, I don’t believe in unpicking deals that have been done. I don’t think that’s quite right as a matter of good faith – so move forward'
Dominic Raab, lord chancellor
Observing the criminal bar strike, then secure a revised deal with the government, led solicitors to conclude that when it comes to legal aid funding, industrial action speaks louder than words. They are now considering action of their own. However, the criminal bar secured a deal with a lord chancellor who adopted a more conciliatory tone to Raab and was willing to negotiate. Should solicitors decide to down tools, they will be greeted with a lord chancellor who refused to budge on pay and believes he was right to do so.
Raab said: ‘I don’t look back on it and think that I was wrong. You’ve got to explain where the over £50m is going to come from. On the other hand, it having been settled, I don’t believe in unpicking deals that have been done. I don’t think that’s quite right as a matter of good faith – so move forward.’
He continued: ‘I certainly don’t believe for a moment that was a warranted strike. I think it did significant damage. I think the CBA didn’t behave in a responsible way. And I think that the £50m pressure that that has put on budgets on top of the autumn statement is something I’ve got to then find.’
With the prospect of solicitors seeing extra cash in next week’s government response unlikely, what will they see? The government’s interim response to the Bellamy review earmarked £20m of its original £135m deal for longer-term reform proposals. (Reminder: Bellamy recommended a minimum £135m extra a year to save the criminal legal aid sector.)
Next week’s response will detail how that £20m will be allocated, ‘in particular how it will support criminal legal aid solicitors’, Raab said.
It will also deal with the Bellamy review’s recommendations on reforming fees for police station work and the litigators graduated fee scheme, as well as how the government can support a viable criminal legal aid market and the wider question of diversity.
‘As much I love the profession from which I came, my job is to try and make sure that for those vulnerable people that need that advice, they get it. So we’re focused on that. I think that does mean inevitably we need a viable sector and I think our reforms will deliver that,’ Raab said.
Will Raab do enough to appease solicitors? Based on his committee session, it seems unlikely.
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