The governing Council of the Law Society has issued a robust defence of Chancery Lane’s stance on criminal legal aid reform, ahead of a special general meeting of the organisation requisitioned by dissident solicitor James Parry.
Council says it faced a ‘binary choice’ in deciding how best to respond in the interests of members, between refusing to engage with the Ministry of Justice or working to secure an ‘evidence-based alternative approach’ that would be less damaging to the profession and the public interest.
Parry, of Liverpool firm Parry Welch Lacey, wants the Society to renege on the compromise agreed with justice secretary Chris Grayling, which included the abandonment of price-competitive tendering, and move to a policy of all-out ‘hearts and minds’ opposition. He accuses Chancery Lane of ‘surrender and appeasement’.
Council has responded by employing Parry’s own language to point out that the Society’s ‘hearts and minds’ campaign of opposition to civil legal aid reforms – while popular with members – achieved only small changes to that legislation.
‘Adopting this approach to criminal legal aid would have permitted government to dismiss our arguments as the noisy protests of a vested interest and might have resulted in no change to their initial proposals,’ says the statement. ‘Failure to present an evidence-based alternative approach would have permitted the ministry to forge ahead, unencumbered by the facts.’
It adds: ‘Engagement was the right strategic choice for obtaining influence and achieving substantive change to the proposals.’
The Society stresses that it and the members who have called the SGM share common goals: ‘All of us want a sustainable future for criminal legal aid practitioners and the maintenance of a criminal justice system which protects access to justice and the rule of law,’ the statement adds.
Though most criminal practitioners voiced strong opposition to the proposals, the statement continues, a small number of larger firms were well disposed to the likely resultant rapid and severe consolidation of the supplier base.
Reaffirming its continued opposition to ‘uneconomic and inappropriate fee structures’, the Council statement says: ‘Much has been achieved, but much still remains to be done. Our formal response to the second consultation sets out the further changes required. We mustn’t give up now, given this key opportunity, before the lord chancellor reaches his final decision, to continue to advance crucial argument and reasoning.’
The SGM, which proposes a vote of no confidence in the senior leadership of the Law Society, will take place on 17 December.