The chairman of the Legal Services Commission struck a defiant note in a debate on family funding cuts, stressing that ‘it is difficult to convince ministers and a hard-headed Treasury that they are getting value for money out of legal aid’.
Sir Bill Callaghan was repeatedly pressed about whether he would be willing to take a stand and tell ministers that the legal aid budget is simply inadequate. ‘Yes, I would warn them if that were the case,’ he said. ‘But you have to think through how likely it is that advocacy would be successful.’
The new fee schemes announced last month showed that ‘consultation has worked’, he insisted, as ‘they were not the proposals we consulted upon’.
He added: ‘It’s a pity [Bar Council chairman] Des Browne didn’t pick up the message that the LSC also believes legal aid is a "pillar of the welfare state". Like all parts of the welfare state, it faces a limited budget, but in recent years family law has been the fastest-growing element of legal aid.’
This did not satisfy Bar Standards Board chairwoman Ruth Deech. Speaking in a personal capacity, she pointed out that costs in family are rising inexorably because of the growing complexity of cases and social breakdown. ‘It’s a sick society that finds £9bn for an Olympics but not a few billion for legal aid,’ she declared to general applause.
Callaghan admitted the LSC and the profession were in an ‘unsatisfactory position’ given recent controversies, but added: ‘The consistent message from the bar and Law Society with every proposal is that there will be a flight of practitioners from [family] and it hasn’t happened.’
The LSC chair also called for an end to ‘sterile debate’ about the quality of solicitor-advocacy. ‘What we need is an objective test of quality for publicly funded work,’ he added, pointing to the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates pilot that is currently being assessed.