News Digest for week commencing 29 April 2013, by Emma Walker
Welsh lawyers plan strike action to reflect widespread discontent about Government proposals for criminal Legal Aid: Back in February of this year, we highlighted concerns over job losses in the Welsh advice sector. The very end of last week saw Welsh practitioners warn of the ‘potentially catastrophic’ impact of the latest cuts proposed by the Government to the criminal legal aid system. For example, Stephen Edwards, a partner at GHP Legal and who specialises in serious and high profile criminal cases, spoke of his alarm that the contract system would force high street solicitors out of the sector. Edwards condemned the “stack ’em high, sell ’em cheap” approach to criminal justice saying that it would result in client interests being put ‘very much on the back-burner’. Edwards’ view is that the competitive tendering model would result in contracts going to the lowest bidder, in the form of ‘mega-firms’ with the lowest operating costs. Edwards described the removal of local solicitors from the sector as ‘horrendous in terms of the administration of justice’ and highlighted the difficulties clients would face by having the choice to change lawyers taken away from them, adding that those who need Welsh language services will suffer amid a general ‘diminution in the quality and administration of justice’. Meanwhile, Huw Lewis, the Welsh Government Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty said: ‘Changes that have already been made to the legal aid system are likely to affect the provision of both the not-for-profit and private sector advice services. This will impact on the people of Wales’ ability to access justice, something which is already a major concern for the Welsh Government.’ Finally, Plaid Cymru Westminster leader and Dwyfor Meirionnydd MP, Elfyn Llwyd, also a barrister said: ‘The legal aid system in the UK was established so as to help the most destitute. We can be sure that the founders of the system would be spinning in their graves at the devastating cuts this government is making to this most fundamental of services.’ Arguing that the changes would discourage solicitors and barristers acting in criminal cases ‘from going that extra mile’, LLwyd said: ‘This shows a spectacular disregard for the rights of all citizens to access to justice, and the principle of equality of arms before the law.’ In response to the proposed cuts, barristers from the Wales and Chester circuit are reported to have voted unanimously against signing up to the proposed system and have therefore agreed to strike against the Government’s plans.
25,000 sign e-petition to save justice in England and Wales: Acting in response to the Ministry of Justice’s consultation on the future of criminal Legal Aid published earlier this month, a solicitor advocate from Exeter, Rachel Bentley, has obtained over 25,000 signatures on an e-petition that asks the Government not to proceed with its plans for further cuts to legal aid. Speaking of the consultation, Bentley explained the motivation behind her campaign, Save UK Justice, saying that ‘myself and a colleague sat in the office having read the Ministry of Justice document and were very concerned about what it represents’. Bentley continued: ‘Family and other civil legal aid lawyers have already suffered massive cuts. We are most concerned that the government, if they get their way, will allocate lawyers. Gone will be the days of building a relationship with your client, and clients being able to choose their own lawyers. Gone will be quality standards, as our main incentive is to do a good job for our clients and keep them with us.’ Bentley’s prediction is for ‘massive redundancies’ if the cuts are allowed to go ahead and described the fees criminal lawyers can expect under the proposed new competitive tendering system as ‘just not viable’. Details can be found on the Save UK Justice website of meetings to be held over the coming months, where campaigners can meet to discuss the best strategies in responding to the Ministry of Justice’s latest consultation on Legal Aid.
Fixed fee scheme will incentivise lawyers to advise client’s to take quick option and plead guilty: This week The Independent also covered the problems anticipated if the Government’s proposed cuts to criminal Legal Aid go ahead. The paper reported: ‘In an attempt to save £200 million by 2018, the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling plans to stop paying solicitors for the work they do – and instead give them a fixed fee for each case they represent.’ This is hardly news for many legal aid lawyers but the article raised other fears about the intended reforms saying that lawyers will be financially incentivised to recommend guilty pleas to their clients in a bid to reduce the time spent representing them under the fixed fee scheme. Concerns were also aired about the fact that defendants will lose their rights to choose or dismiss a solicitor and that the number of accredited Legal Aid firms will drop from 1,600 to less than 400 which, it is feared, will precipitate a takeover of high street firms by huge contractors such as G4S. The Independent pointed to revealing admissions by the Ministry of Justice in its consultation paper, including the fact it anticipates “the proposed competition model may have an adverse impact on clients…because they would no longer have the choice of selecting any provider to deliver criminal legal aid services”.
Are truckers the answer to the legal aid crisis? This week also saw news that the Stobart Group is likely to bid for a criminal Legal Aid contract if the Government goes ahead with its plan to introduce price-competitive tendering. Trevor Howarth, group legal director for Stobart Barristers, told attendees at the Modern Law conference that existing Legal Aid firms were ‘wounded animals waiting to die’. Howarth later confirmed his firm is geared up to bid for a regional contract if the Government introduces its current proposals, adding that those protesting against government reforms were unlikely to change the proposals. Under the proposals, the Ministry of Justice will run tenders in 42 national areas and firms will submit bids for three-year contracts based on volumes of work. Future providers could be individual organisations, such as partnerships or legal disciplinary practices, or they could include joint ventures or alternative business structures. Bidders will be able to offer services in more than one procurement area and successful contractors will receive an equal share of work in the relevant procurement area. The Government’s consultation on price-competitive tendering will end next month, on 4 June 2013.
Law Society invites views on Government proposals for criminal Legal Aid: The Law Society’s consultation paper inviting the profession’s views on the alternatives to price competitive tendering for criminal Legal Aid is due to close on Friday 10 May 2013. The Law Society states that the purpose of the paper is to give its members ‘an opportunity to contribute to shaping the vision and strategy of the Society in relation to future tendering for criminal legal aid services’. The Law Society says it remains ‘deeply concerned that any tendering model based on suppliers competing for legal aid contracts solely on the basis of price may be unsustainable’ and therefore asks members to provide ideas and feedback on the options outlined in its consultation paper. The Law Society is urging as many of its members as possible to respond to the paper, irrespective of whether they undertake Legal Aid work. The results captured by the paper will inform the Law Society’s response to the Government consultation and should therefore be a priority for any member concerned with the development of the justice system.
Lessons for Legal Aid lawyers – maximising costs’ recovery and profitability: On 21 May, the Law Society will be hosting a live webinar to help practitioners maximise their costs recovery and profitability under their civil Legal Aid contracts. As the title and subject matter of the webinar suggest, the training is aimed at Legal Aid practitioners, who will have the opportunity to ask questions during the live session. There will also be an option for subscribers to access a recorded version of the training. Practitioners will need to register by 5pm on 20 May, to ensure they are able to participate in the training webinar.
PAYG practice note prompts criticism from profession: On Wednesday, the Law Society published a practice note for family lawyers looking for more affordable ways to serve their clients. The practice note makes recommendations on offering ‘pay as you go’ legal services as a way to minimise costs to clients, by allowing clients to deal with aspects of their cases themselves. The note follows on from the practice suggestion made by the Law Society President, Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, at its Legal Aid Conference in March. However, the note also warns of the risks such ‘unbundled’ services can present. ‘Unbundling’ refers to the provision of isolated or ‘discrete events of legal assistance’ by a solicitor under a ‘partial retainer’ rather than a traditional retainer under which a solicitor deals with all aspects of a case. In its purest form, says the note, unbundling means a case remains client-led so the solicitor does not accept service of documents, does not send out correspondence in the firm’s name or otherwise communicate with third parties, does not incur disbursements and does not go on the court record. The note has already been met with widespread disapproval from the profession, with commentators saying they ‘do not understand the logic of solicitors being advised on how to support the Government in dismantling our legal system by unbundling our legal services… The Law Society has lost the plot big time’. Others compared the unbundling of legal services to taking your car to the mechanic once you’ve had a go under the bonnet yourself or a patient attending surgery once they had made the necessary incisions on themselves. One critic exclaimed that ‘anyone who agrees to act on this basis is not so much unbundled as unhinged’. To take a view for yourself, read the practice note here.
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