I must say that my firm’s experience and that of other solicitors and members of the bar, with whom I have had a number of conversations on the topic over several months, reflects Mr Roberts’s experience. Only this week my firm established with the LSC that in relation to payments for ‘Claim 1s in lieu’ for September (of which we have many) they are still working on claims received in May so that we have been waiting something like four months for substantial payments and will no doubt have to wait a while more before they are paid.
This puts completely unacceptable pressure on our cashflow which, for an organisation that derives a very high proportion of its income from the LSC, is not easy to cope with. This is because the rates are so poor, the profit margins are paper thin, and for much of the time we subsidise the government by paying disbursements which we do not recover for months or even years.
A somewhat prosaic point to be made is that proper investment in legal aid so that litigants can receive professional representation will, in the long run, reduce the costs of the administration of justice, compared with a system where the courts battle to ensure that unqualified litigants in person are given a fair hearing.
The much more important point is that issues which legal aid practitioners are frequently called upon to deal are fundamental to the basic principles on which a free society is based. If these fundamentals are not properly guarded, our hard-fought democratic freedoms will collapse.
The signs have existed for some time now that this government and previous governments have been trying very hard to effectively dismantle the legal aid scheme, calculating that, unlike the health service there is little public interest in defending it. It is now scarcely fit for purpose.
The situation will become increasingly dire unless the political will is found to restore this element of that inspiring welfare state in which I believe this country was once rightly proud to lead the world.
William Bache, William Bache & Co, Salisbury Wilts