As many know this is my second term as President of the Association: I last held the position in 2015-16 between which there has been a kind of inside-out Greg sandwich thanks to Messrs Foxsmith and Powell. In 2015 the legal profession was united to get rid of Chris Grayling, and the general election gave some hope of that. Alas while many of us were concentrating on legal aid, others focused on bacon sandwiches and the election led directly to the 2016 referendum since when Brexit has suffocated almost all other topics of political debate. The reason I mention this is because it demonstrates how long we have been treading water without any progress and how our justice system has suffered as a result.
We were within a hair’s breadth of duty solicitor contracts when the plug was pulled. Firms who successfully bid were offered contracts on the basis of the volume of matter starts that they committed to undertake. Imagine what would have happened to firms that had made those commitments unaware not only that lower crime volume would plummet, but also that work would dry up as the criminal justice estate was “reorganised” and local courts and police stations shut? Surely the government was aware of the closure plans when offering the duty contracts?
The next round of contracts is likely to see a dramatic fall in providers: we have seen numerous firms announcing their withdrawal from publicly funded criminal defence work, overwhelmed by oppressive over-regulation and the daily struggle to persuade the LAA to pay what is due for the work done.
Turning to events of the last twelve months, the Committee has been busy representing the interests of the 700-plus members of the association. Since the start of the year I, together with Greg Powell and others from the Committee, have been engaging with the MOJ. On the plus side, our counterparts present as different animals to the vandals that presided over previous debacles. Disappointingly, however, although I wish I could write of good news, we have received no assurances that there will be new money available for criminal legal aid, despite advanced discussions in relation to criminal legal aid fees. It may be that the uncertainty of and preoccupation with Brexit is the cause, but that is essentially why we have been treading water for four years without concrete proposals. With the average age of the profession being 47, it is time for the government not to simply acknowledge the emergency but to do something about it which does not simply depend upon the survival of a few larger firms.
In the past few months we are proud to have triggered debate on the astonishingly high number of suspects Released Under Investigation with our legal limbo campaign and survey. Hickman and Rose followed this up with a freedom of information request that revealed an eye watering total of 193,000 RUI suspects.
Vice President Kerry Hudson has represented your interests during the disclosure review, and both Kerry and I were invited to speak at a conference on the topic to London prosecutors and senior police officers. Suffice it to say we made it clear that we were not - contrary to popular view - participating in a game
Jonathan Black LCCSA President 2018-2019