In response to the government?s consultation paper, Transforming Legal Aid - the Next Steps, the LCCSA organised a meeting on 1 October at the Camden Centre. Around 500 solicitors and barristers attended. On the platform, along with president Akhtar Ahmad and past president Greg Powell, there were representatives of the Legal Aid Practioners? Group (LAPG), the Criminal Bar Association (CBA), the Criminal Law Solicitors? Association (CLSA) and the Law Society.
Akhtar said that the unitedprofessions had defeated some of the most dangerous proposals put forward by the government in their first paper, Transforming Legal Aid. Carole Storer, of LAPG, chairing the discussion, expressed her concern at the way in which politicians seem notpersuaded by evidence ? not least by the fact that expenditure on criminal legal aid is actually going down.
Greg Powell said that the government?sassertions about the conclusions of the Otterburn report, commissioned by the Law Society, were a travesty: it does not say that it will be possible to deliver the current quality of service after a 17.5% cut. He pointed out that, if cuts go ahead, fees for police station work in London will, in fact, be cut by 33% or 34%. "We can no longer fulfil our professional obligation to defend people at these prices?, he said, raising the possibility of some form of direct action, affecting the criminal courts.
Nigel Lithman QC, of the CBA, also supported direct action. "No profession has ever been treated with such contempt?, he said, describing the proposal to cut VHCC cases by 30%.
The mood of the meeting changed when Des Hudson, of the Law Society, made his contribution. He was clear that "the Lord Chancellor does not need all of you to deliver the CJS: he only needs some of you.? He said that there is no support for the legal profession in Parliament.
He then went on to describe the discussions that the Law Society had engaged in with the government since the first consultation paper and argued that much had been achieved: the government has retreated on its proposals about client choice and price competitive tendering. Insisting that the Law Society was not in favour of cuts, he told the meeting that, in the light of the Big Firms? Group?s assertion that just 250 firms are prepared to deliver the whole criminal contract, when negotiating with the government, some concessions (on a two-tier approach to duty solicitor contracts) had to be made. His speech was greeted with cries of "Shame!? and no applause.
Bill Waddington of the CLSA described himself as "stunned, shocked and disappointed by the Law Society?s U-turn.? He continued, "Client choice is no choice at all if your high street solicitors go out of business.?
From the floor, there were repeated calls for unity, action and attacks on the Law Society?s position.
Michael Turner QC said that the Society had talked to government without the support of the representative organisations and asked for an assurance that it would not make further concessions without consulting those they represent. Des Hudson responded, "If the Law Society takes a decision, it does so with reference to its constitutional arrangements.?
Others from the floor asserted that there was indeed support for the professions in Parliament and that it is inaccurate to say that 250 firms could cover the work currently done. There was a discussion of possible action against the proposed reforms and cuts; and a resolution was passed that there should indeed be some action and that the leadership of the representative bodies would agree the finer details.
Other resolutions included an expression of no confidence in the MoJ to deliver an efficient justice system and a demand that it should withdraw the current consultation, the proposed cuts and the restrictions on access to justice, and engage in constructive evidence-based dialogue concerning the administration of justice and its funding,involving all interested parties.