Statement by Michael Turner QC – Tuesday 2nd July 2013
The right of a citizen to choose his or her legal representative is a fundamental cornerstone of criminal justice in a civilised society. Accordingly, the CBA welcomes the Secretary of State’s belated acknowledgement of that principle, and his abandonment of the wholly repugnant proposal that the recipients of criminal legal aid should have their solicitor chosen for them.
The CBA cannot help but be sceptical about the timing of Mr Grayling’s volte face, coming as it does two days ahead of his appearance before the Justice Select Committee, and in the face of overwhelming opposition, from all shades of the political spectrum, and from stakeholders across the justice system. Mr Grayling’s statement seems to designed with one thing in mind, to try and ensure that the Justice Select Committee takes its eye off the prize; the prize being the preservation of a system that delivers high quality legal representation, and ensures access to justice for all citizens, irrespective of means.
The Consultation Paper acknowledges that cuts in fee rates for criminal legal aid of the order of 17.5% or more are unsustainable for the solicitors’ profession, which is operating on the margins of profitability as it is. The solution put forward in the Consultation Paper was to ensure volumes limiting the number of contracts, by denying choice, and allocating clients in the hope that firms would be able to upsize by up to 250% and thereby achieve economies of scale, which would enable rates to be cut whilst maintaining profitability. Allocation of clients like a commodity to ensure volume is an essential element of the equation, and without it, the model cannot work. Accordingly, the CBA takes the view that the proposal for PCT, which was flawed from the start, is now dead.
The stated aim of the Consultation Paper is to make savings of £220m by 2018 – 19. The CBA does not accept the need for any cuts to rates of pay for criminal legal aid lawyers in order to achieve savings. The bill for criminal legal aid is, far from ‘spiralling out of control’, decreasing year on year, due to cuts in rates already working through the system, and falling volumes. The CBA has made constructive proposals as to how the Ministry of Justice can make further savings, and we remain willing to engage in a constructive dialogue. The criminal Bar has seen fees first frozen then cut over the past twenty years, and the CBA sees no necessity, or justification, for cutting them further. Accordingly, the criminal bar will fight any attempt to reduce fees by all lawful means at our disposal.
The Law Society has, in a paper published yesterday, proposed that there should be discussions with the government aimed at restructuring the market for the delivery of criminal legal aid services. It has been suggested in social media that this document was put forward as a joint document, and has been endorsed by the CBA and others. It was not. The proposals made by the Law Society have been interpreted as paving the way for the sort of upsizing and reductions in fees that the Consultation Paper envisages, to the detriment of smaller firms. Whether this a correct interpretation or not, as we have always made clear, the CBA does not see this as the way forward. Criminal legal aid is a service that, by its very nature, is delivered locally, face to face, by solicitors with offices on high streets, not by faceless corporations via ‘hubs’ and call centres. Accordingly, if and in so far as the Law Society’s proposals represent a step in that direction, the CBA would not wish to associate itself with those proposals.
I, more than anyone, have fought to bring the professions together to fight these iniquitous proposals. I am determined that that that unity should continue, and I am not about to see sectional self-interest fracture that.
The CBA will continue to Do Right and Fear No One, starting with a visit to the Public Accounts Committee on Wednesday.View more news