Legal Aid

Peer pressure

PUBLISHED July 13, 2007

We write as members of the family peer review panel. Peer review is a valuable and independent process. We are involved as peer reviewers because we believe that peer review is far preferable to an audit system like transaction criteria in assessing the quality of work carried out for clients.

In less than three months, the Legal Services Commission will introduce fixed fees for levels 1 and 2 family legal aid work. We are concerned about the impact this will have, firstly on the standard and quality of work, and secondly on access to justice.

We have serious reservations about whether the standard and quality of work that we currently look for can be maintained under the proposed fee structures. As the legal aid ?reforms? have progressed, there has been considerable emphasis placed upon the role of peer review in ensuring that quality is maintained in a fixed-fee environment. However, the presence of peer review alone will not determine that quality is maintained. Quality of service will only improve if peer review is harnessed to a realistic level in fees being paid to the practitioners undertaking the work. In our view, the proposed fee structure does not provide a realistic level of fees.

We are also concerned about access to justice for those who depend upon the public funding system and, particularly, the most vulnerable clients, whose cases are often the most time-consuming and difficult.

Writing in the Gazette earlier this year, Vera Baird QC MP, then the legal aid minister, suggested peer review would ?monitor case mix?, thereby avoiding cherry-picking (see [2007] Gazette, 1 March, 12).

Peer review will not do this. Our concern is that fixed fees will make access to good-quality advice ever more difficult for those who need it most. While we will continue to assess the quality of the work that we see, what we will not know is how many people never receive the advice that they need.

Andre d?Ambra, Nick Aspley, Kay Boswell, Helen Broughton, Yvonne Brown, Jeremy Charlton, Jon Comyn-Platt, Simon Coupe, Karen Doyle, Shobhini Ehzuvan, Jeanette Ellis, Susan Harlow, Alison Heylin, Pete Littlewood, Sunita Mason, Pauline Matherson, Sue Maunders, Kathryn Newton, Robert Prigg, Jo Purnell, Donna Rose, Mary Shaw, Jo Trythall, Peter Whitfield, Rebecca Wigglesworth, Faye Wright

The government?s response to the constitutional affairs select committee?s concerns over the potential diminution in quality was effectively that peer review would vouchsafe quality being maintained. Similarly, the then legal aid minister Vera Baird QC MP stated in the Gazette: ?Peer review will ensure lawyers? quality of service improves, and it is pleasing to see the legal profession embrace this change.?

Over the course of the last few weeks, the two largest panels of peer reviewers, crime and family, have met to discuss quality of service in their respective categories, how to assess it and whether they can indeed ensure it improves.

Although there were different views about other matters, none of us believes that peer review will be able to ensure that lawyers? quality of service improves, simply because no one believes that the proposed changes to the public funding of legal services will ensure that the current quality of service can be maintained. Members of other peer review categories also subscribe to this view.

Further, Ms Baird?s assumption that the peer reviewer process will omnisciently ?police? the way organisations compete for, and deliver, work in the future is sadly misconceived.

The current standards of representation in the criminal justice system cannot be maintained under the reduced funding levels proposed. The resultant inevitable erosion in the quality of the service provided will have the greatest impact on the most serious charges and most vulnerable defendants. Inherent in the consequent reduction of services and quality is the risk of daily miscarriages of justice and an erosion of the individuals? ability to properly defend themselves against prosecution by the state.

As professionals who are concerned enough about socially-excluded members of society to still engage in publicly-funded work, we urge the government and the Legal Services Commission to concede that its proposals carry no guarantee of maintaining, let alone improving, quality.

In our view, the longer-term result will be the complete destruction of an adequate quality of service, as experienced and dedicated lawyers are driven out, and not replaced, by the uneconomic rates of pay.

Sent on behalf of all members of the crime peer review panel, including Geoffrey Bell, Anne Bellchambers, Robert Chandler, Mitch Cohen, Helen Cousins, Vanessa Francis, Michael Garvey, Nicola Gordelier, Neville Gray, Michael Gregson, Jonathan Hall, Nicola Hall, Stephen Halloran, David Hardy, Zaki Hashmi, Miles Herman, Hamish Hodgen, Nicola Hornby, Helen Johnson, Andrew Keogh, David Lawson, Sue Lenier, Adrian Lovett, Alison Marks, Peter Morrison, Ros Olleson, Stephen Parker, Brent Patterson, Andrew Pearson, Sharon Persaud, Michael Reay, John Smith, Debbie Starrs, Peter Stringfellow, Kevin Tomlinson, Philip Whittaker