We have become accustomed to legal aid cuts. During a period of austerity, with widespread economies in government expenditure, no-one paid from the public purse could expect to be exempt. But for criminal law lawyers, there have already been successive and consecutive reductions in remuneration, occurring during years of prosperity. Little meat ? and certainly no fat ? is left on the legal aid bone.
Our case is clear. Why is it, then, that we are not joined by our fellow solicitors in arguing it to government?
The story of the petition
Earlier this year, proposals were put forward for price competitive tendering; these were flawed, ill-judged and pernicious. The campaign to defeat these planned changes faced one practical difficulty: they were never to be debated in parliament, but signed off at the whim of the Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, after a sham consultation organised by the Ministry of Justice. With no public debate, it was hard to gain the interest of MPs, the media or the public.
Then came the "save legal aid? petition organised by Rachel Bentley. It required (as is the way with these petitions) 100,000 signatures to get a "debate? in Westminster Hall. Eventually, we got there; we congratulated ourselves (and Rachel); and there was a small debate, which Grayling didn?t attend. But there was a period where it looked like we were struggling to hit the target; we were even overtaken by Brian May?s petition to "save the badger? which secured the required number of signatures in a week.
Where were the other solicitors?
There are about 120,000 solicitors practising in the United Kingdom. Why did it take so long to collect 100,000 signatures? If every solicitor had signed, we would have hit the target very quickly, without needing to harass partners, parents, friends and neighbours.
Of course, only a small percentage of solicitors are criminal legal aid lawyers; and we are very different creatures from other solicitors, such as commercial litigators, who earn £800 per hour. But we are, nonetheless, one body of professionals, represented by the Law Society; we all pay the same practising fee; and we have a common interest: the law.
Surely, anyone who practises law should have an interest in justice? We need solicitors from other disciplines to come out and support their brother and sister practitioners in our hour of need. We need them to sign our petitions, lobby their MPs and show they care about legal aid, even if they don?t practise it. And we could use their help to fund our campaigning.
Legal aid lawyers are not going to win this struggle on our own: we are either ignored as a minority fringe-group or vilified in the press as fat-cat lawyers motivated by self interest. Of course, we have built some alliances ? with the Bar (different boat but falling down the same waterfall) and with coalitions like the Justice Alliance; but we need to reach out also to the wider profession. If we can?t even get solicitors to stand up and be counted, how can we expect others outside the law to care?
Will the Law Society reach out?
I write this article in the immediate aftermath of the historic vote on 17 December, expressing "no confidence? in the president and chief executive of the Law Society. This unprecedented event presents us with a fantastic opportunity: we need our fellow solicitors? help; and now is the time for us to make a direct request to them. The Law Society represents all solicitors of every type. Now a newly invigorated Society should take the lead and ask our colleagues in law to support us.
The "no confidence? vote is a result of the disappointment which criminal law lawyers have felt at the way the Law Society has behaved. Personally, I was furious with the Society for, it appears, doing a back-door deal without consultation and, in my view, mishandling the negotiations; but what we must now do is to look forward and to ready ourselves for the bigger battle. The pragmatist approach must be to make sure that the events of 17 December do not give rise to any unnecessary distraction, diverting time and energy from fighting the common enemy: the government cuts and the Ministry of Justice civil servants behind them.
The war over legal aid cuts is not over; the Law Society ? with whatever personnel and in whatever form ? must support us in the battles ahead. It must now engage with the solicitors at the coal-face, not just with a few representatives of the Big Firms Group. It is incumbent on us, as individual members of the Law Society, to make sure that they understand and get behind our arguments so that, together, we can engage with the government. We need to build bridges and work constructively.
Some positive proposals
We should (1) acknowledge our differences but unite in the common cause, campaigning individually and collectively to save legal aid; (2) encourage the Law Society to engage with the wider membership, not just firm-owners; (3) with the Society?s help, secure support (financial and other) from the wider Society membership; and (4) encourage the LCCSA to broaden its membership, and follow the CLSA lead in reducing membership fees.
We all need to take some responsibility for the campaign ahead. There is no point leaving it to the Law Society ? or, indeed, to the LCCSA. And, members, you can do it: you stand up for your clients against hostile police officers, prosecutors, inefficient court services, the bureaucratic Legal Aid Agency, cynical juries, vitriolic media and difficult judges. You work tirelessly in your quest to secure a result. If you think you have no time to campaign against cuts, think again! Treat legal aid as a client and make the case for it. The work may be pro-bono but the prize is a valuable one: our future, the future of legal aid ? and of justice itself ? are all at stake.
- Greg Foxsmith, Freelance solicitor