The government’s plans for price-competitive tendering (PCT) will have a ‘devastating’ impact on firms and chambers in Wales, leaving clients represented by English firms and without Welsh language provision, lawyers have warned.
Their concerns come as solicitors and barristers unite today staging a demonstration in Westminster before attending a mass meeting this afternoon dubbed ‘Justice For Sale’.
Under the proposals, 21 contracts would be awarded to provide criminal legal aid work to cover the whole of Wales – nine in South Wales and four each in North Wales, Gwent and Dyfed Powys.
Mark Davies, director of Swansea firm Goldstones, told a press conference in London yesterday that the nine firms in South Wales would have to cover a ‘huge’ area, including Swansea, Bridgend, Cardiff, Merthyr Tydfil and the valleys.
‘If you get arrested in Newtown and the lawyer sent to represent you is based in Haverfordwest it’s going to take over two and a half hours to get there and back – it’s a 130-mile round trip.’
At the current rate, he said the work would generate £20 profit, and he suggested that no one would do it under new scheme.
Davies said Wales survives on high street practices and warned that the change would have a ‘devastating impact’, forcing many firms to close and creating advice deserts for clients.
‘What we are going to have will be the death of the high street firm,’ he said.
President of Monmouthshire Law Society Keith Evans stressed that ‘access to justice has got to be local’ as parts of Wales are some of the most deprived areas in the country and people cannot afford to travel distances to see a solicitor.
Lynda Roberts, solicitor at Porthmadog firm Breese Gwyndaf, said that the proposed PCT model is ‘economically unviable’ and that no firm in North Wales is big enough to bid for the contracts.
She said she feared that contracts would be given to large firms based in England whose representatives would know nothing about the local area and who would be unable to provide advice or representation in Welsh.
Roberts stressed that client choice should be ‘paramount’ and said the provision of advice in Welsh, which for many in North Wales is their mother tongue, is ‘essential’.
She said the Ministry of Justice’s consultation is silent on the provision of Welsh-language services. In addition she said that the eight-week consultation paper, published in English in April, was not made available in Welsh until a month later.
Roberts accused the ministry of failing to comply with its duty under the Welsh Language Act.
Chairing the press conference, justice committee member and Plaid Cymru MP Elfyn Llwyd (pictured), who is also a barrister, warned that the ‘unworkable’ PCT proposals, which he said remove client choice, will create a ‘race to the bottom’ that will result in miscarriages of justice.
‘It is going to create injustice; it is a cut too far,’ he warned.
Llywd stressed that proposals were not feasible, not only in Wales, but in other rural areas in Devon, Cornwall, the Yorkshire Dales and Cumbria.
Barrister Paul Lewis QC, representing the Wales and Chester circuit, condemned the removal of client choice and warned that the plans will not only lead to the collapse of many chambers and solicitors firms in Wales, but deter students from publicly funded work and negatively affect the future judiciary.
Highlighting the effect of the fee reduction for the most serious cases, Lewis said they ‘quite unashamedly’ mean that for very high-cost cases that last over 40 days, barristers will be paid around £14 a day.
‘If we were employed rather than self-employed that would be unlawful because it would breach minimum pay regulations,’ he noted.