New economic research, jointly commissioned by Chancery Lane and practitioner groups, will examine the spending assumptions behind the government’s planned cuts to legal aid fees.
Next month, Law Society members will have the chance to vote on a no confidence motion following a petition from James Parry who questions the Society’s approach to influence the government during its criminal legal aid consultation. There is no doubt government proposals, notwithstanding the concessions our approach secured, will have a major impact on criminal practitioners and defendants. But the ramifications of a vote of no confidence go far deeper than legal aid. If carried, the motion could seriously jeopardise the Society’s ability to influence the government in future on issues affecting any group of members.
The Law Society and its members want the same thing – a sustainable future for criminal legal aid practitioners and the maintenance of a criminal justice system which protects access to justice and the rule of law.
The leadership at the Society - including me - had only two options: refuse to engage with government and risk a highly damaging set of proposals, or directly engage with ministers and civil servants to persuade them - using evidence - to take a less damaging path.
Against a backdrop of the most drastic spending cuts in a generation, across all government departments and essential local services, what has been achieved is no mean feat. Stubborn protest on its own would not have stopped price-competitive tendering, would not have maintained client choice and would not have shaped duty solicitor contract sizes. Our approach did.
Those significant gains are in the bag, but we must continue to work with the government to hang on to them and to continue to influence where savings will be made. If we sit back or take to the streets, cuts will be handed down to us without consultation or discussion.
When we met the lord chancellor with practitioner groups earlier this month, he was challenged for evidence on the effect the Ministry of Justice cuts would have. The Law Society, in partnership with practitioner groups Criminal Law Solicitors Association, London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, LAPG and some firms, has commissioned Oxford Economics (a leading specialist research group) to take an urgent and serious look at the MoJ’s forecast for legal aid spending over the next five years. The objectives are threefold.
First, to assess whether the MoJ has taken fully into account all relevant variables when making their legal aid fund forecast. That is, checking that they really need to make the level of cuts they have announced in order to reach their spending target in 2015-16. Second, to analyse what is driving legal aid spending, so we can shed some light on where there is unnecessary cost being created and where such costs could be reduced or removed, making the future a little less challenging for members. We hope it will tell us whether it’s crime rate, types of crime, police behaviour, whether people are tried in magistrates’ courts or the Crown court and so on, which is driving spending. Third, we want to create our own forecast for the legal aid fund over the next five years to inform our engagement with the MoJ on future proposals.
It is a partnership approach like this – with the profession united and speaking with one voice, backed up with evidence - that will mean we can continue to influence the government and secure the best possible outcome for solicitors. We will not be able to stop cuts, but what we can do is make sure they are challenged and made in areas that will have the least possible detrimental effect on the people we represent. There is no getting away from the fact that it is a bleak time for criminal practitioners, but I would urge members to trust that we are doing everything we can, in incredibly difficult circumstances, to act in their best interests and continue to lobby for whatever concessions are realistically possible.
Desmond Hudson is Law Society chief executive