The government’s revised plans for criminal legal aid reform met with a mixed reaction, ranging from acceptance that the deal agreed is the best that could reasonably be expected, to fears that miscarriages of justice could still follow.
Explaining the Law Society’s approach to talks with the MoJ over the summer, president Nicholas Fluck said the two parties shared key objectives - to ensure the continued provision of high-quality legal services for those accused of a crime and to secure long-term sustainability in the criminal legal aid sector.
‘It is with these objectives in mind that we have agreed to the modified proposals,’ he said.
He accepted that criminal legal aid lawyers will still face a ‘challenging’ future, but said the revised plans offer ‘genuine opportunities’ for those firms who wish to continue to work in legal aid and pledged that the Society will work to support them through the changes.
‘Though challenging, today’s proposals represent the opportunity of a long-term sustainable future for many of our members working in criminal legal aid,’ he said.
‘No change is not, and has never been, a realistic option. The current market is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the future.’
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson (pictured) told the Gazette the result was the ‘best set of outcomes’ in the context in which the Society had to operate, achieving the ‘best possible deal’ for the highest number of practitioners and firms.
But he said the deal was not a victory, as the Society had not persuaded the government of the ‘very serious risk’ of fee cuts.
‘Any further reduction in fee rates is a very unwelcome step, but we don’t believe there would ever be a political consensus to ringfence legal aid.’
He stressed that the Society had some influence in achieving a ‘pragmatic’ outcome with the ministry. ‘If you look at where the government started from and where they are now, it would be churlish to say that the lord chancellor hasn’t listened, although we would have liked him to have gone further.
‘We have no price-competitive tendering, and instead general contracts awarded on quality criteria not a cut-throat pricing regime.
‘Our obligation has been to maximise the number of solicitors that can remain in practice on a sustainable basis.
He anticipated that ‘passions will run high’ and said he understood the views of those who opposed the Society’s approach, but insisted that negotiating served the best interests of the profession.
The president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, Akhtar Ahmad, greeted the abandonment of the ‘ill-thought-out, dangerous’ plan for price-competitive tendering as a ‘relief’.
But he condemned as ‘foolhardy’ the continued demand for ’savage’ 17.5% fee cuts, which he warned will still leave many firms in jeopardy.
Bill Waddington, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said that criminal solicitors required three outcomes - retention of client choice; no PCT; and no cuts.
‘The third of these has a big cross against it,’ he said.
Waddington doubts many firms will be able to withstand even the phased fee cuts proposed.
He predicted: ‘Lots of businesses in London are at a considerable risk and cannot survive. Outside London, I fear there will be a similar effect, although not to the same extent.’
Director of the Legal Action Group, Steve Hynes said the deal was the ‘best’ the Law Society could have obtained in the circumstances.
‘It’s not going to be popular with some practitioners, but change was inevitable given the impact of reducing volumes of work,’ he said.
Hynes suggested that pressure for fee increases will rise as the economy picks up, but that will be a ‘problem for another government’. ‘Grayling has got his quick fix to keep the treasury happy,’ said Hynes.
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan said Grayling’s announcement confirms that his original plans were ‘half-baked, legally illiterate nonsense’.
‘The justice secretary has been forced to climb down and the sloppy way he goes about making policy has been exposed by experts in the field from judges to rape victims, from high street solicitors to the victims of miscarriages of justice who really do know what they are talking about,’ he said.
The Bar Council said it will study the revised proposals carefully. Chairman Maura McGowan QC said: ‘It remains the case that cuts to legal aid are the harshest in the public sector.’
She said the amount of money that the ministry is seeking to save does not justify the consequences of the cuts. ‘It is inevitable that this will impact heavily on the quality of both criminal and civil legal aid. The people who lose out the most are the public who rely on a justice system which operates efficiently in the public interest,’ said McGowan.
For criminal lawyers, the chairman of the Society of Asian Lawyers Sailesh Mehta said that instead of an ‘instant and unfair culling’ firms will face a ‘slower and more lingering death’ for which they are ‘expected to give humble thanks’.
He warned that the reform package risked ‘irreparable damage to the justice system and a result’ that will result in miscarriages of justice.