I suspect that there have been sighs of relief at the Ministry of Justice as solicitors have gone to war with each other over the handling of the government’s proposed cuts to criminal legal aid.
This is an issue which has been simmering for months. We know that this government has no love for funding access to justice for those who cannot afford to pay for it. Criminal lawyers have had it worse than anybody else. They have been threatened with competitive tendering on price, removal of a client’s choice of lawyer and the inevitable attack on their fees. It should never be forgotten that these lawyers work long, anti social hours for little reward. It is work for the committed.
The Law Society’s response has been to negotiate with the MOJ. They have maintained a firm opposition to the cuts but maintain that dialogue is the only realistic way to achieve concessions to the proposed changes. A group of solicitors who feel that the Society has not gone far enough have submitted a motion of no confidence in the Society’s President, Nick Fluck and its CEO Des Hudson. The motion will be considered on 17th December. Under the Law Society’s constitution it has to be a personal vote. If passed then there will be a postal ballot of the whole membership.
The Law Society has called a meeting of its council for the same day. Supporters of the motion have accused the Law Society of doing this to ensure a strong turn out of supporters. The Society says it had to call the meeting on that day in order to respond to the outcome of the motion. And so the rhetoric goes on.
In the meantime the heat is well and truly off as far as ministers are concerned.
I am not a criminal lawyer and would be first in the queue to support them. They work incredibly hard for little reward. I would not presume to have an opinion on whether the Law Society has done enough. It is simply not a subject on which I know enough to express a view.
What I would say is that division will achieve nothing. Will the government take any more notice of the profession which is at war with itself? We know that the Ministry of Justice takes little notice of arguments against its cuts. Maybe those supporting the motion are expecting too much. Maybe there is more the Society could do. But they need to thrash these issues out and reach a united position at all costs.
Because the status quo is going to achieve nothing apart from some bad press about lawyers bickering among themselves.