The Law Society has reiterated its opposition to proposed legal aid cuts and vowed to keep pressing for changes to the government’s proposals.
As lawyers across the country staged an unprecedented mass protest against the plans, the Law Society’s head of legal aid policy, Richard Miller, gave his first formal speech following last month’s special general meeting of the Society.
Miller told an event organised jointly by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and the Criminal Law Solicitors Association that the Society had ‘taken on board’ what was said at the SGM and its outcome. He added that chief executive Desmond Hudson and office-holders had spent time focusing on how to address the fact some members felt their views were not properly canvassed.
‘We don’t want our members to feel excluded from their representative body. That isn’t how a representative body should work. This is why we are working hard on remedying how we communicate with you,’ he said.
Miller said ‘a lot more meetings with members’ had already been planned and the Society will be talking to as many solicitors as possible over the next few weeks. But he added: ‘It’s a two-way street. We can’t talk to you if you aren’t prepared to meet us. So please let me know if you want us to come and see you.’
Miller expressed confidence that by working together, the profession can show the government that the cuts are ‘unsustainable and ill-advised’.
He stressed that the Law Society has never supported the fee cuts, adding: ‘It never will and we will never miss an opportunity to stress this to the government.’
Miller pledged that Chancery Lane will continue to warn the government of the risks posed by the cuts to access to justice and to the hundreds of legal aid firms and lawyers who work in them. Stating that there remains work to do, he said: ‘It’s important to remember, nothing is finalised yet; the die has not been cast.’
He told the profession not to forget that ‘significant concessions’ - the ditching of price-competitive tendering and restoration of client choice - have already been achieved.
‘PCT is off the table. That was members’ single biggest desire and it is wrong for some to suggest that PCT was going to fall away. It was not. It was defeated by the powerful combination of negotiating and campaigning by the Law Society and our members, including the valuable work of the practitioner groups.’
Miller said the Society has secured a quality requirement to ensure that criminal legal aid work was not simply handed to the cheapest bidder and the final number of contracts to be awarded will be determined by independent evidence. He pledged to continue to push for more concessions, in particular on informal consortia, flat fees in police stations and common fees irrespective of plea.
He added: ‘We recognise that, after two decades without increases in legal aid rates, with shrinking volumes of work and the prospect of further cuts, there are those who have reached the point of despair.’
The Society, he said, understands why some criminal solicitors are frustrated and angry with the Ministry of Justice proposals.
‘That is why we have respected the right of individuals to choose whether to attend the day of action, but I must stress – like the Bar Council – it would be illegal for us to encourage members to act contrary to the terms of their contracts.