Signs of a cabinet split over the government’s legal aid proposals have emerged after the deputy prime minister voiced concern over the removal of client choice and the attorney general appeared to endorse barristers’ concerns that the changes would ‘damage the justice system’.
The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that Nick Clegg (pictured) had described as ‘perverse’ the plan to prevent people from choosing their own solicitor, and warned that it would harm small high street law firms.
The paper reported that, when asked about the reforms by lawyer and Lib Dem activist Nick Thornsby, Clegg said: ‘You could say it’s perverse that a government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice rather than increasing it.
‘The only straitjacket on all of this is the need to yield about £220m of savings in legal aid in criminal cases.’
Clegg said: ‘On the back of the consultation we should see if there are alternative, less disruptive, less unpopular ways of delivering that.’
His comments follow remarks made by the attorney general Dominic Grieve QC in a letter to barristers, in which he appears to take their side in the dispute over the proposals.
In reply to a letter from 145 treasury counsel warning over the unfairness of the proposals to limit legal aid for judicial review, Grieve acknowledges the ‘deeply and sincerely held’ concerns of barristers about the entire package of reforms.
His comments contrast with justice minister Lord McNally’s dismissal of the profession’s concerns as ‘hysterical’ on BBC Radio 4’s Law in Action programme earlier this month.
Despite criticism of the proposals from the country’s most senior judges, a Conservative former lord chancellor and numerous charitable and campaign groups, McNally stood by his comment at a legal aid ‘Question Time’ event held by the Bar Council last week.
Grieve also rebutted McNally’s frequent assertion that much of the legal profession’s opposition is due to vested financial interest.
Grieve said he recognised that the profession’s concerns ‘go well beyond the personal, financial implications’ and extend to the ‘potential impact on the quality of the justice system this country is rightly proud of’.
Grieve, who as attorney general is head of the bar, stopped short of directly criticising the reforms, but recounted a speech he had given to the Bar Council in April.
He recalled that he had said: ‘The service provided by the legal profession is taken for granted and that there is a general view that whilst lawyers complained about every financial cut imposed, the edifice will continue to function as it has in the past.’
But he acknowledged that many barristers took the view that the proposals will ‘cause the edifice to collapse’.
He commended the Bar Council’s ‘thoughtful yet powerful’ response to the Transforming Legal Aid consultation and said it is important that the bar explains ‘why these proposals will damage the justice system’.
Grieve distanced himself from the proposals and said: ‘Policy in this area is owned by the lord chancellor and not me.’
But he said he had spoken to the lord chancellor Chris Grayling, and said he would continue to raise the profession’s concerns. ‘I will endeavour to ensure, as far as I can, that the decision he reaches in due course is a fully informed one,’ said Grieve.
The consultation on the reforms, which seek to introduce price-competitive tendering, 17.5-30% fee cuts, limit funding for judicial review and remove client choice, received around 16,000 responses, the vast majority of which are likely to have been against the proposals.