Thursday 20 June 2013 by Catherine Baksi
The attorney general has rejected a call for all publicly funded lawyers to be paid the same rates, claiming that lawyers representing the government do 'more varied and complex' work than legal aid lawyers representing ordinary people.
As the government seeks to make savings by cutting criminal legal aid rates by between 17.5-30%, Labour MP Hugh Bayley asked the justice secretary to consider capping the fee rates paid to government-instructed lawyers at legal aid rates and to estimate the amount that could be saved by doing so.
He also asked how much could be saved by prohibiting the government from pursuing litigation that does not have a reasonable prospect of success.
Responding for justice secretary Chris Grayling, the attorney general Dominic Grieve (pictured) said it is not possible to estimate the sum without examining every piece of work done.
'Nor is it the case that the litigation and advice for which legal aid is made available is analogous to the work of government, which is vastly more varied and complex than that for individuals and corporates,' he said.
Grieve said: 'No realistic comparison can be made. Much of the legal advice which government obtains in the course of its business is given in order to ensure that government is acting lawfully and within its powers.'
He insisted that the costs of government litigation and advice are carefully controlled, using only advocates appointed to the attorney general's panel and whose hourly rates of between £60-£120 an hour have not risen for over 10 years.
Grieve said: 'I am satisfied that the current process balances the need for governments to have access to the best quality legal support at a cost that provides real value for money.'
The attorney's comments will anger legal aid lawyers who suggest that the work they do is equally varied and complex, and that their clients should also have access to the best quality lawyers, not - as the Transforming Legal Aid consultation suggests - a lawyer of 'acceptable' level.
Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association Bill Waddington said Grieve's remarks were 'an absolute cheek'.
'You cannot say that matters dealt with by legal aid lawyers are simple and all government work is complex. All areas of law can be complex, whether it concerns commercial contracts with the government or criminal cases involving terrorism or child abuse,' he said.
Michael Turner QC, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, pointed to the complexity of some of the work that he has done in 'shaken baby' cases, where he has had to cross-examine up to 20 experts, including ophthalmologists and endocrinologists.
He said: 'It demonstrates the hypocrisy of the government, which recognises the need for the best quality legal services when it comes to itself, but not for others.' The Bar Council, of which the attorney is the head, echoed the criticism.
A spokesman said: 'We agree entirely with the attorney general that the government should procure the best quality legal advice at a cost affordable to the taxpayer. We just believe that members of the public receiving legal aid should have access to the same level of quality and not be allocated whichever legal services provider will bid the lowest for a contract.'
He added: 'If it is good enough for the government, it should be available to everyone else as well.'