‘Unity is our secret weapon’ was the key message that emerged from this week’s unprecedented meeting of 1,000 defence lawyers who voted unanimously backing a motion that price competitive tendering was ‘not the way forward’, writes Jon Robins.
The former Court of Appeal judge Sir Anthony Hooper delivered a withering attack on the proposals contained in the Transforming Legal Aid consultation paper and on their author Chris Grayling. ‘These proposals by the inaptly named “minister of justice” are fundamentally flawed and must be rejected in whole,’ Sir Anthony said; calling on lawyers to sign by the e-petition. ‘It is a complete scandal that changes of this kind can be done by secondary legislation,’ he said. ‘Let’s get it before parliament.’
The event was organised by the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and took place at Friends House near Euston. Lawyers, who aren’t allowed to strike under competition law, voted in favour of a rolling programme of ‘training days’. They also backed a motion, not to co-operate with the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA).
- Earlier in the day, there had been a rally outside Parliament which featured Gerry Conlon of the Guildford Four and Breeda Power, daughter of Billy Power of the Birmingham Six, together with the families of Jean Charles de Menezes and Alfie Meadows as well as politicians and families – see HERE for a full report.
‘Back in the 1970s they were sending innocent people to prison by the van load. If the likes of Eddie Stobart comes in, they will be sending them to prison by the lorry load.’
The theme of the day was the building of an unprecedented consensus of opposition to the government’s plans to introduce PCT from a sector that hasn’t been able to unite. As CLSA chair Bill Waddington put it: ‘If clients saw us representing ourselves over the last few years, they probably wouldn’t use us.’ He said that defence firms had ‘a history as a profession of kowtowing, rolling over and accepting whatever comes our way’.
‘We are at the cliff edge now. Do we carry on as we have before, and, over we go, many of us immediately and then the survivors the next time around. By coming together we have at last overcome one of our greatest weaknesses… allowing ourselves to be divided.’
Speakers repeatedly referenced controversial comments by Chris Grayling that people who find themselves in our criminal justice system were not ‘great connoisseurs of legal skills‘. ‘We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds,’ Grayling told the Law Society’s Gazette.
Too thick to pick
According to CLSA vice-chair Robin Murray it was ‘a great insult which will be long remembered and hung around his neck for all time’. ‘It’s an absurd thing to say. People are already great connoisseurs because they vote with their feet and gravitate to good lawyers by reputation,’ he argued. The reason why Grayling said that is ‘that he has to justify the abolition of client choice so he can equalise volume for competitive tender bidders”, he added.
Client choice was ‘the greatest determinant of quality and quality is the enemy of competitive tendering’, Murray argued.
Sir Anthony quoted at length the impact assessment from the consultation (para 23) on quality assuarance when client choice would be removed. (‘We will ensure that quality does not fall below acceptable levels by carefully monitoring quality and institute robust quality assurance processes to ensure it does not fall to an unacceptable level.’). The former judge dismissed it as ‘gobbledygook’. ‘Contrary to the views of the “secretary of state for injustice”, defendants are not “too thick to pick”.’
The Labour MP for Hammersmith and shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said that Grayling’s ‘connoisseurs’ comment was ‘quite a breathtaking thing for a Lord Chancellor to say’. ‘This is a fundamental attempt of the kind we have never seen before to de-professionalise the court system, to establish inequality as a principle.’ Chris Grayling wasn’t the issue. ‘This is more important than an individual. It is about a fundamental attack on the civilisation of this country.’
Greg Powell, past president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, began his speech with a poem by Bertolt Brecht. He accused Grayling of ‘wrapping himself in the great cloak of austerity’. ‘This isn’t about austerity. It is about power and politics. It is about rolling back rights and access to justice. And how it is to be defeated is in our humanity with one another by acting collectively and asserting that the rule of law only has meaning if there is access to justice. That depends on a fearless profession.’
Nigel Lithman QC, vice chairman of the Criminal Bar Association, said that the government ‘did not seem to understand the havoc that they are causing in the judicial system. Either that or they just do not care’. He argued that the proposals would ‘eradicate 75% solicitors firms at a stroke and decimate the criminal Bar’. ‘And they give us eight weeks to respond? How much more clearly can they telegraph that their consultation is a charade.’
‘The juggernaut can be stopped if we all stand together. The Bar and solicitors must continue to remember that they are two sides of the same profession. Each should be interested, active and involved in the aspirations of the other. We are almost at the heart of the justice system. I say almost because it is the public who is at the heart of the justice system.’
No easy answers
For all the appearance of unity, the president of the Law Society Des Hudson indicated that there were tough choices ahead. He acknowledged that his views were not likely to go down well with most of the profession (‘…here is where I risk making a grave mistake…’) but insisted that lawyers needed to make a choice. A choice between campaigning on the basis that the PCT plans are defeated ‘in whole’ and a new political consensus built that ‘must not tolerate either these changes’ or accepting some case for reform. ‘What I’m concerned about is if [Grayling] is defeated on PCT, what will he do next? Is this a simple binary choice: PCT or the status quo. It may not be so simple.’
Hudson pointed out it was New Labour (including ‘politicians we heard today’ at the rally outside Westminster attacking the Grayling plans) that passed the Legal Services Act that ‘made the provision of legal services by a truck company possible’. ‘I fear that Act of Parliament is not going to be repealed. Is the status quo over the medium term a viable option?’
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