The lord chancellor Chris Grayling has pronounced. He is going ahead with major cuts to legal aid and changes to the way legal aid is delivered – after over 18,000 representations received from all quarters, from individual members, practitioner groups, the Law Society and other interested parties.
Between us, we have adopted different tactics: the Society has engaged with the Ministry of Justice. Some have urged strike action and others tried everything in between.
No one should doubt that we fought hard and intelligently for our members in line with the mandate settled by Council and our Legal Affairs and Policy Board. But despite the changes we secured, we know that the cuts and changes will be devastating for many of our members and pose considerable challenges for our criminal justice system.
No one is happy with this outcome.
While recognising that the lord chancellor’s announcement is grave and unwelcome, it is worth reminding ourselves that his original proposals were even worse. In April 2013, these included:
- No client choice;
- Price-competitive tendering in which the cheapest price wins;
- No quality threshold;
- A maximum of 400 contracts to cover both own client and duty work;
- An immediate fee cut of 17.5%;
- A single fee irrespective of plea;
- A single national fixed fee for police station work; and
- No transitional arrangements.
I am not remotely pleased with the final announcement but, along the way, the work of the Society and others has secured:
- The retention of client choice;
- The removal of price-competitive tendering;
- The introduction of a quality threshold;
- The guarantee of own-client work for all members who meet the quality threshold;
- 525 duty contracts, the highest figure in the MoJ’s range;
- The chance for informal consortia to increase that 525 figure further;
- Higher fees for not guilty pleas;
- Weighted fees for higher cost areas; and
- Transitional arrangements.
On the cuts, which we have opposed outright from day one, the 17.5% reduction will be phased in two stages for solicitors. The reforms fall equally on solicitors and the bar. Indeed, suggestions that the most recent graduated cuts for the bar mean they got a better deal are wrong. The cuts outlined for the bar are just the final part of the reforms already ongoing for them. Barristers have had their first round of cuts. The reality is that solicitors and barristers will all face the same 17.5% cut.
Are we pleased with the final package? No.
Do we think members have a good deal? Of course not.
But do we feel that our work turned a bad situation into something that remains shocking but which is better because we lobbied and engaged? Absolutely.
I know some disagree with this approach. To those that claim we should not engage, I say that this would have resulted in a package of reforms far worse. I ask them, could they have looked their colleagues in the eye if we had manned the barricades, only to see Grayling introduce his original package of reforms unchanged?
There is, of course, more that needs to be done.
We will continue to oppose the government’s cuts and we will continue to raise our concerns about the practical implications of their cuts and planned changes.
Our approach has delivered some important changes. But we know that, for many firms, the future is bleak. Now, our priority is to do all we can to support our members and their firms during this most difficult time. This is no time for gesture politics.
We have to face the harsh realities of the government’s changes and we want to keep the maximum number of firms afloat and the highest possible number of solicitors practising criminal law. It won’t be easy but it is a task worth our effort.
Desmond Hudson is chief executive of the Law Society