The “Save Legal Aid” Crisis – is an end(game) in sight?

21st July 2015

On Thursday there will be a remarkable meeting about the current crisis in criminal legal aid – remarkable that it is taking place at all, remarkable in who is attending it, and remarkable that it appears to have no preconditions.

Everyone who should be there will be around the table, and it would seem that there is nothing “off the table”.

It is a credit to everyone involved.

The meeting was announced today.

Michael Gove, the new Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, will meet representatives of four criminal lawyers’ groups.

This is a shift in approach by the MoJ, which under Michael Gove’s predecessor gloried childishly in confrontation and provocation. And this was unfortunate, as the MoJ was formulating and implementing a botched “reform” of legal aid.

For the four lawyers’ groups to be in one place is exceptional: for when cats complain, they must complain of herding lawyers.

Two of the groups, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, represent the smaller legal aid firms.  They will be joined by the “BFG” (not the Big Friendly Giant, sadly, but the “Big Firms Group” of the larger solicitors’ firms).  The BFG is not entirely a natural ally of the other two groups.

And there will also be the Criminal Bar Association (CBA).  Until recently the executive of the CBA was persisting in a misguided (if possibly well-meaning) policy of “constructive engagement” with the MoJ.  In effect, this meant that the CBA sought to protect barristers’ fees and higher court advocacy, regardless of the interests of solicitors.  This suits the MoJ, which in turn played solicitors off against barristers.

Last week’s significant vote by the CBA membership changed all this.  The members defied the leaders and voted to adopt a “no returns” policy which, in effect, will bring the work of crown courts to a halt.  No returns will start on 27 July.  The date is now looming; and the policy will significantly escalate the effect of the boycott on criminal legal aid work which has been in place since 1 July.

Had the members of the CBA not voted against their leadership, it is difficult to see that Thursday’s meeting would be taking place, and that all four lawyer groups would be attending.

The best chance of resolving the current crisis, in a way acceptable to all sides, is for the meeting to succeed.

If a public confrontation is forced then there will be lingering damage. If one side “gives in” then there will be lasting resentment. If nothing is done, the criminal justice system will slide further into chaos.

Michael Gove has made fine speeches since his appointment.  He has said many of the right things.  But Thursday will be perhaps his first real test of substance: can the crisis be resolved so that the criminal courts can work again?

It may well be mundane; but the best practical meaning of “upholding the rule of law” is to make the court system work as well as it can, and to ensure people have proper access to that system.



3 thoughts on “The “Save Legal Aid” Crisis – is an end(game) in sight?”

  1. Spot on. Well written.

    If the Lord Chancellor changes government policy on legal aid, there is a chance to save some vestiges of Access to Justice and a chance to make the creaking system limp on. Otherwise there is the inevitability of a car crash in which the Criminal and Family Justice systems in England and Wales will be the victims. Law Firms will close in massive numbers, the courts will not be able to cope with the number of litigants in person, the Junior Bar will shrivel, very few of the best qualified and brightest young lawyers would in the future contemplate a career in an area funded by a collapsing legal aid system, and a huge section of the public in E+W will feel it has no stake in a legal system that will appear to have abandoned them.

    It is possible to avoid that nightmare scenario. But it will involve a massive government U-Turn and a great deal of political courage by Mr Gove. He has been bequeathed a very poisoned chalice by his predecessor in title, who seemed to go out of his way to antagonize those whose co-operation and goodwill were essential to keep a leaking boat afloat.

    Good Luck!

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