The government is far from finished with its cuts to legal aid.
I have already talked about the plans to introduce competitive tendering for Criminal Legal aid work and the intention of a well known trucking company to enter the bidding –
The whole idea of competitive tendering is controversial and will effectively remove the right of those accused of crimes, to choose their own lawyer. At the moment there are over 1000 firms who act for Defendants with the support of legal aid. The government wants to cut about £220m from the budget and is aiming to achieve this by putting the work out to the lowest bidder. The result will be a dramatic reduction in the number of suppliers. We will see the inevitable closure of firms who have done nothing wrong. In fact they are the ones who have done the most demanding of work – often involving midnight visits to cells – for very low pay. Even Chris Grayling would not dare to call them fat cat lawyers and conceded as much in an interview with Catherine Baksi -
As far as Criminal Barristers are concerned he said - ‘I think most criminal legal aid lawyers in the junior bar are not particularly well paid.’ No mention of Solicitors but they’re not well paid either.
The removal of choice is as surprising at it is misconceived. In most other areas this governments bangs on and on about giving people more choice. But when it comes to Access to Justice for ordinary people they change their tune completely. It is all about removal of choice altogether.
The plans have come under attack from The Legal Services Consumer Panel. This is an independent body created by the Legal Services Act 2007 to advise the Legal Services board from the viewpoint of consumers. They have given the idea a big thumbs down calling it ‘unfair and likely to damage the quality of representation in courts and police stations’ –
The Ministry of Justice has made no secret that it will have to guarantee a certain level of work for bidders. This can only be achieved by removing a Defendant’s choice. So if someone is arrested and charged – innocent until proved guilty – they will be told who is going to be their lawyer. Whether they like it or not. There can be no stronger case for the state to fund proper legal representation, than when the state itself is bringing a prosecution against a person with the full weight of its resources behind it. To dilute that person’s choice of lawyer is a very dangerous move.
I was at the Liverpool Legal Awards Dinner on Saturday and one of the winners reminded us that the present government is one which knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.
You cannot put a price on justice.