Around 400 solicitors gathered at Chancery Lane today (17 January) to unanimously back a motion rejecting the Government?s controversial reforms for the UK?s legal aid system.
At a Special General Meeting (SGM) held at the Law Society?s headquarters, the lawyers - most of whom are legal aid practitioners - gave their overwhelming support to a motion tabled late last year by Southampton practitioner Roger Peach. The manifesto calls for solicitors to reject the Government?s proposals to introduce competitive tendering between firms and the awarding of fixed-length contracts for legal aid work. It also urges the Law Society to renegotiate fresh terms for criminal defence contracts.
Speaking at the meeting, Peach gave an impassioned defence against price-competitive tendering and issued a battle-cry to solicitors to stand against the reforms, which were drawn up last year after a 12-month review process led by Lord Carter.
He said: ?We can only win this battle if we have the Law Society right behind us, fighting tooth and nail.?
Former Law Society council member Simon Mumford, who seconded the motion, also called for Whitehall to perform a U-turn on the reforms, branding them ?a fundamental attack on the profession?.
The SGM, the first called by the society in five years, was attended by president Fiona Woolf, chief executive Des Hudson and vice president Andrew Holroyd, as well as City of London Law Society chair David McIntosh and veteran legal aid lawyer Lucy Scott-Moncrieff.
The news comes as the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee kicks off a series of evidence sessions this afternoon in a bid to establish how far the Government has met with the concerns that were expressed during earlier consultation periods.
The move comes after it emerged last week the Law Society could call for a judicial review of the decision-making process behind the proposals (see story).
Solicitors in several key regions, including Cardiff, have already taken strike action during the last three months and more industrial action is anticipated across the UK following the outcome of today?s meeting.
Commenting on the SGM, Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes said: ?The Government needs to have another look at the implications of these reforms and listen to the people who work in the legal aid sector. If they do, they will understand that these reforms represent a direct threat to the sustainability of legal aid in this country.?
Law Society research released last year suggested 800 law firms could be put out of business as a result of the proposals, which aim to drastically cut the UK?s spiralling legal aid budget. In the last five years, the budget has increased by 24% from ?1.65bn in 2000-01 to hit ?2.07bn in 2005-06.