Criminal legal aid can sustain at most only 300 firms rather than the current 1,600 in the sector, a leader at a national criminal aid firm has predicted, warning that ‘significant consolidation’ is needed in the face of falling levels of work and cuts in fees.
Franklin Sinclair, senior partner at Tuckers, said: ‘There are too many firms, too many solicitors and too many barristers, doing too little work for too low a price.’
Sinclair told the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group annual conference in Manchester that while Ministry of Justice officials may think firms are ‘crying wolf’, they face ‘desperation stakes’ with a ‘crisis’ in London and other urban areas as a result of the planned onslaught on fees, coupled with a drop in the number of cases.
He accepted the government is entitled to secure the best value for taxpayers’ money, to provide suitable quality at the lowest cost, but claimed sustained cuts have made all work a ‘loss leader’ and resulted in a ‘dumbing down’ of standards and increasing the possibility of miscarriages of justice.
‘It is now impossible to provide a decent service under the current system,’ said Sinclair. ‘Basic quality is all we’re expected to provide and all we can provide for the fees on offer.’
The ministry’s proposals, he suggested, will result in a ‘slow death’ for firms that will ‘slowly go bankrupt’.
He insisted there is a future for criminal legal aid firms, but warned ‘not a lot of people will like it’.
Sinclair said there needs to be ‘significant consolidation of the market’, reducing the number of firms from around 1,600 to 250-300, otherwise he warned ‘no one will prosper’.
Firms, he said, will have to grow or merge, predicting: ‘I can see 300 firms surviving and thriving, so students will want a career in criminal legal aid in he future.’
He suggested the system will ‘cleanse itself’, insisting the ‘rotten egg’ lawyers who bribe defendants to get work need to be ‘rooted out’.
Sinclair advised the ministry to leave rural areas out of its reform plans. The budget spent in those regions, he said, is small and the minimal savings that may result from change, he warned, will ‘create havoc in the countryside’.
He said the government has to secure a sustainable supplier base across the country, and warned that if they ‘get it wrong, the supplier base will go’.
But he added: ‘The MoJ have a chance to do something about it and to give us a better future than the one we have now.’
Tuckers received £8.27m from criminal legal aid in 2011/12.