When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.

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“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.”
Winston Churchill

There are approximately 125,000 solicitors practising in England and Wales and a further 40,000 who remain on the Solicitors Roll but who do not practice. Additionally, there are about 6000 barristers working in the country.

The e-petition created by Rachel Bentley needs 100,000 signatures to make sure a debate in Parliament on the Ministry of Justice proposals for the reform of Legal Aid. So why have we not yet reached the figure needed? Maths was never one of my strongest subjects but if all the solicitors and all the barristers signed we would be well over the finishing line by now.

Well, obviously not all will support the petition, although I have been struck by the sense of unity within the criminal profession, both solicitors and barristers. Some will still not know about it as it simply does not affect their part of the profession. What relevance does legal aid have to a city lawyer. Others, and this is a view I have come across more and more often, have said to me why should I bother, you did nothing when the Ministry came for me?

This is sadly, true. For too long now we have sat on the sidelines whilst we watched others within the profession get slowly taken apart and thought “Well, thank goodness it wasn’t me, this time!”

Conveyancers lost out as their part of the industry was made open to the market, probate departments watched as unregulated will-writers moved in and took a massive share of the market. The Bar struck a compromise when solicitors fees were cut, solicitors lapped up the right to become Higher Advocates. Civil lawyers were left reeling after various funding reviews and criminal lawyers breathed a sigh of relief when LASPO seemingly left us largely untouched, whilst the family lawyers looked around at the devastation caused.

It’s natural to want to protect your own. It is perhaps understandable to walk on by when you might get hurt by wading in. What it means is that when you need someone to help you they may simply not be there.

I blogged about the possible consequences of LASPO when it was being mooted as far as criminal lawyers were concerned. I mentioned the impact on my family lawyer colleagues but no more. I didn’t understand them, I didn’t appreciate the likely consequences enough to comment on them and left it to those that did to try and do something about it. I regret that now. It may have been of no help but at least I could say I tried.

The Ministry of Justice tell us that they are prepared to listen to us, that they will seriously consider an alternative to PCT and across the board fee cuts if we can show an alternative. The reality is that without the figures, the information on costs, costing and so forth we are always going to be at a disadvantage. The people who hold this information are the very people who want to impose the cuts. We need to have this matter in the open, to have it properly debated and examined and not just within a closed group of lawyers.

The e-petition will not in itself stop PCT, it cannot propose the alternative, but it will raise the issue to a wider audience and will hopefully allow a debate that we can all contribute to.

If you are a lawyer of any sort please sign it, have your colleagues sign it, have your family sign it and raise the issue everywhere. Let us all as a profession, regardless of discipline, history or position move forward together as one. Otherwise when the men from the Ministry come for you, and they will, there may be no-one there to stand by your side.

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Time to listen…

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As the deadline for submitting a response to the Governments legal aid consultation draws nearer, the Lord Chancellor has agreed to meet with members of the profession this week. I would like to think that he may be willing to listen to the arguments put forward and see the sense behind the opposition to his proposals. That he would understand that the financial basis of the reforms are based on figures that are out of date. That the real consequences of the proposed reforms will be a downward slide in the quality of advice given, which may very well cost more money in the long run.

Sadly, I am less than convinced that this will happen, and the meeting is simply an exercise in public relations.

His department have made it clear that there will be significant cuts made, that the model of price competitive tendering has been deemed as the way forward; and opposition is simply the attempt of the profession to save it’s own skin.

Joshua Rozenberg reported last week on one of the engagement meetings run by the Ministry of Justice and concluded that the Ministry are open-minded as to proposals for the reforms on Legal Aid.

The head of legal policy at the Ministry stated, “We appreciate that the proposals are causing deep concern and people have genuine worries about aspects of the model. That’s why we genuinely want to hear from people. I know people often think that responding to government consultations is a waste of time. All I would say to you is that we want to hear your views. We want to hear your suggestions.”

What was not made clear from that statement is that the consultation paper does not ask for proposals, suggestions and comments on the issue as to whether PCT is the rights way forward. It seeks suggestions as to the best way of allocating clients, the nature of the procurement areas and so forth. There is implicit in the document that PCT is going to be imposed regardless.

That is why as a profession there is so much concern, so much anxiety. The model for PCT proposed does not guarantee quality, does not ensure that rights are protected and fails to recognise the difficulties and peculiar nature of the provision of criminal advice and representation.

I am concerned that the consultation exercise is a waste of time, that the responses given will make little difference to the eventual outcome. I have this concern because the department and Chris Grayling has very recent form for ignoring the views and evidence put before him in a consultation document.

In the foreword to the departments response to the consultation on Reform on Judicial Review published within days of the legal aid conference he said,

“Last year, I published an engagement exercise which sought views on a series of proposals for reform of Judicial Review. The need for reform was driven by concern about the growth in the use of Judicial Review and the delays these proceedings create, in some cases frustrating plans for growth.

There was a body of support for my proposals, mainly among businesses and public authorities. But most of the responses we received were opposed to reform. There was criticism of the consultation procedure and the lack of evidence, and some saw the proposals as a serious attack on the rule of law.

I do not accept these criticisms.”

That consultation had twenty seven named contributors, all of whom had either a vested conmercial interest in judicial review being removed or being strictly limited, the ones he listened to. Or they worked with groups for whom judicial review was the last resort, those he ignored.

It is against that background that we seek to persuade him that the proposals put forward are wrong. The proposals are based on figures that do not take into account the significant reductions already made in the criminal legal aid spend, on bold assertions of fat cat lawyers making millions from the hard work of normal people, fail to evidence where the public have lost faith in the system.

Politics is I am sure a difficult game, and a balance needs to be acheived in what is done. Somethings I believe are too important for politics and the principles of justice, access to justice and a lawyer of your choice is one of them.

I hope my colleagues can persuade Mr Grayling of this later. In the meantime we can all send him a message…

Please sign the petition www.epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628

Contact your MP http://www.parliament.uk/about/contacting/mp/

Respond to the Consultation (you don’t have to be a lawyer)

The person behind the file…

 

 

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The pile of files sitting on my desk at the moment represent to me the cases I have to deal with in the next forty-eight hours. For the people whose name is on the front of those files they represent a critical point in their lives. How I deal with those files, what work I do and how I present their cases could make a real difference in the outcome for them.

My first senior partner was an old school lawyer in every sense of the word. He was from a fortunate background which meant he didn’t need to work, and probably hadn’t needed to work for the nearly forty years he had been qualified. He didn’t need to turn out at 2am on a Sunday morning but he still regularly did.

I once asked him why he still flogged away at the coal face and he told me that he felt he had a moral imperative to speak up for those who could not themselves. He said clients would come to me to discuss their problems, their issues and put them all in an untidy pile on the desk in front of you. As their lawyer it was my job to try to sort through those problems, those messy issues and as far as I could make sure that the pile of problems and issues they took away were at least a bit tidier and a bit smaller when they went away.

As a legal aid lawyer this is what I have always tried to do; this is what in my experience my colleagues, friends and other legal aid lawyers try to do on a daily basis up and down the country. It may not always be appreciated, it certainly doesn’t pay well and it drives the accountants mad.

We are not angels, we are not crusaders, we are not all morally blind liberals. We just understand that clients should have a choice in who they put their trust in, who they want to make their problems a little more manageable. Quality advice makes a difference to the client, to the victim and to all concerned. We are committed to providing a quality service that we can be proud of.

This is what Chris Grayling is taking away, this is what he is trying to dismantle in favour of a cheap, efficient and acceptable service. This is why I and thousands like me have signed the petition against the reforms, why I submitted a response to the consultation and wrote to my MP warning him of the dangers.

If you want the right to choose the lawyer that will care about the name on the front of the file then please do the same. If you want the profession to wither on the vine then don’t do anything at all, sit back and hope someone else does something.

As lawyers we stand up every day and plead our clients cases, we ask for understanding of what they have done, we argue their case because they can’t.

As the MoJ prepares further spin, as the BFG explains why they are best placed to represent the needs of your clients, as the Law Society placate the MoJ with compromise, take a moment to remember it is the name on the front of the file that got you interested in doing it in the first place. All we do is measured against that.

#saveukjustice petition

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