Legal Aid

Lawyers protest in bid to save legal aid

PUBLISHED March 19, 2007

Hundreds of lawyers will demonstrate outside Parliament today in protest at alleged mis-management of legal aid lawyers by the Legal Services Commission and the Department of Constitutional Affairs.

Legal aid lawyers claim their action has been sparked by a disregard for the facts by both organisations, unwillingness to listen and determination to impose measures which will irreparably harm the system.

They claim it will result in a loss of access to justice, a fundamental right, to the most vulnerable people in society.

Roger Peach, chairman of the Criminal Defence Solicitors Union said: ?The Government intends to drive hundreds of legal aid firms out of business.

?This monopoly purchaser is performing an experiment without precedent in contracting a public service, which will create advice deserts and leave tens of thousands of people unable to access justice.?

Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, added: ?If there is any part of Government unfit for purpose, it is the Legal Services Commission.

?They have lost the confidence and trust of legal aid suppliers as well as their grip on reality.?

He said demonstrators were at a loss to know how to make the Government listen.

"There is an unfolding and unprecedented crisis in legal aid supply,? he added.

Demonstrators said the cost to the public purse of legal aid is ?tiny? - less than half a per cent of Government expenditure.

Organisers said the system is being put at huge risk and after 10 years of price freeze, legal aid rates have lost 23% of their value.

A Department for Constitutional Affairs spokeswoman condemned the protest as ?unprofessional and irresponsible?.
Any disruption to the courts is against the public interest and is lamentable when risked by the professionals who earn their living there,? she said.

?Victims of crime who may have been summoned as witnesses as well as their own defendant clients will not thank them.

?It is unprofessional and irresponsible for solicitors to abandon their court responsibilities to go on a rally.?

She added: ?Our legal aid reforms are essential to safeguard the future of legal advice for ordinary people.

?Clearly, lawyers will have to change the way they work to meet the challenges of the new scheme.

?Major firms are doing so and engaging in ongoing consultations with the Legal Services Commission. We would invite these solicitors to do the same.?

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, told BBC Radio 4?s The World At One: ?The purpose of the reforms is to ensure the poorest in society do have the opportunity to get legal advice.

?Since 1997 there has been a very substantial increase in criminal legal aid. The proposals that are being made will ensure there are more fixed fees and there is more competition on price without a reduction in quality for the criminal legal aid stuff, making more money available for civil and family legal aid where people most need help.?

While there may be fewer firms doing the work, he said, the number of lawyers involved is unlikely to fall.

?If we really are serious about providing advice to the most needy, then we?ve got to make sure the money we provide actually goes to the front line.

?Less fragmented firms, bigger firms, closer to where the work is being done, will provide more advice to people.?

Funding for voluntary bodies such as the Citizens Advice Bureaux was up from ?18 million to ?76 million over the last five years, he pointed out