Carter could fix it

PUBLISHED November 17, 2005

The Carter review can improve the long-term health of legal aid, says Janet Paraskeva

The Carter review of legal aid procurement presents a great opportunity finally to secure a long-term strategy for the provision of legal aid. It has as its stated aim the establishment of ?a system that achieves maximum value for money and control over spending, while ensuring quality and the fairness of the justice system?.

Those of us who care about the future of legal aid recognise this attempt to set a strategy for the next decade as a chance to end the cycle of crisis and cuts that have plagued the system, left lawyers demoralised, and vulnerable individuals deprived for so long. It is not about finding a quick fix on fees ? that approach is one of the reasons why we are where we are now. This review must put an end to that short-term sticking-plaster mentality.

That is why the Law Society is working closely with practitioners to inform the work of the Carter review team. We are facilitating a serious piece of research by consultants on behalf of the Carter team into cost drivers in the current system. We are highlighting what actually happens now in police stations, magistrates? courts and Crown Courts, and we are of course looking particularly closely at very high-cost cases. Practitioners and firms are giving up a lot of time to make sure that that Lord Carter and his team are provided with an adequate understanding of the system. Practitioners are feeding into the review their experience of how legal aid actually works on the ground.

This patient and collaborative approach has served solicitors well in the past. When barristers withheld their services over legal aid rates of pay in connection with very high-cost cases last year, the Law Society and individual solicitors were working and negotiating hard with the government. What we finally secured, although I do not think we trumpeted it sufficiently at the time, was the first increase in rates for nine years. This time, the stakes are higher and our ambition is that much greater, but I am sure that taking the same constructive approach will pay dividends now, too.

Already, the Carter team is finding examples of cost-shifting that need to be addressed if we want to have a robust system in the future. An easy example is the badly-prepared prosecution case that wastes the time of the court and the defence. Addressing problems such as this will make the entire system more efficient. In a world where resources are inevitably limited, less waste means more people helped.

Lord Carter is focusing on criminal legal aid work. This is the area where the costs are rising as a consequence of more legislation and more complex procedures, and the effect is to eat away at the provision for civil legal aid. The Law Society has long lobbied the government to address this problem. The fact is that robbing Peter to pay Paul ? raiding the civil legal aid budget to meet the spiralling demands of the criminal system ? is a vicious circle. We need reliable civil provision to address many problems faced by the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in society, whether they are to do with housing, welfare or family matters. Investing in dealing with those issues at an early stage can help to avoid bigger ? and more expensive ? problems later. Aiding vulnerable individuals at an early stage can help to avoid a slide into social exclusion and even criminality. It is a widely recognised phenomenon.

For too long, the Treasury has seen the legal aid budget as a growing black hole. Piecemeal attempts to address the problem have failed to inspire confidence in the Department for Constitutional Affairs? control of the system or the budget. Putting legal aid on to a firmer footing now and having a clear strategy going forward will help the department and those in the field to make to the Treasury the strong value-for-money case that there is to be made about legal aid. We have to be clear about the financial realities facing this and any future Chancellor of the Exchequer, and be hard-headed about the case that we make for more investment in legal services.

Keeping a clear head will help us all to achieve the best outcome from the Carter review. Our aim must be to secure the long-term health of the sector served by an adequately-sized base of legal aid practitioners. Continuing the cycle of hasty reaction with an eye on good headlines in the short term will mean that we continue to limp along, putting clients and firms at greater risk.

Janet Paraskeva is the Law Society chief executive