More reasons to get depressed

PUBLISHED February 10, 2006

In his report to the Government today on publicly-funded legal services, Lord Carter of Coles will recommend what he calls a "market-based reform of criminal legal aid procurement". This seems to mean that lawyers defending people facing criminal charges will be paid as little as the Government can get away with.

And how do you find out what the market will bear? Lord Carter's answer is price-competitive tendering - inviting lawyers to bid for block contracts.

Instead of being paid by the hour or by the case, a law firm could receive a fixed fee for all the defence work generated by a particular police station during a particular week.

This is likely to mean the end of neighbourhood legal aid practices, which do not have the economies of scale enjoyed by larger firms. But even firms with high overheads are vulnerable to the "man on a moped", the sole practitioner with a mobile phone who operates from home.

The Government's view seems to be that there are too many lawyers. It also wants to reduce the number of people going to court by persuading offenders to accept fixed penalties and conditional cautions - so there will be less work for lawyers to do.

But everyone knows that if you pay peanuts you risk getting monkeys. Lawyers paid fixed fees will be reluctant to chase the vital witness or the extra piece of evidence that could make the difference between justice and injustice. They will also be unwilling to go the extra mile.

A solicitor told me last week he had recently received a call from a client on bail who was reporting to a police station.

The desk officer refused to lend his pen to the defendant so he could sign on. It was early evening. The solicitor phoned the station and was kept on hold for 45 minutes before he persuaded the police that their lack of co-operation would not look good in court.

The desk officer had thought he could get away with this petty harassment because he couldn't believe that the defendant had a solicitor willing to work for him, unpaid, for over an hour.