Thursday, March 22, 2007

Lawyers fight legal aid changes

by Caroline Colebrook

HUNDREDS of defence lawyers came to Westminster on Monday to Lobby their MPs against changes to the legal aid system, which they claim will force many firms of solicitors to close and will deny access to justice for people on middle and low incomes. They have followed up the lobby with a three-day work-to-rule in the courts.
Their action is supported by several pressure groups, including the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Law Society is considering making a challenge to the new legal aid contract in court.
At the same time thousands of civil servants, members of the PCS civil service union, employed in courts in England and Wales, are also considering taking industrial action in a separate dispute over pay and the funding crisis in the whole justice system.
The Law Society is expected to challenge the new legal aid contract on the grounds that it is unfair and unenforceable because the Legal Services Commission (LSC) has the power to change it unilaterally.
The changes are based on proposals arising from a Government-commissioned review headed by Lord Carter of Coles.
Solicitors will be paid fixed fees for handling cases instead of hourly rates. The solicitors claim this will lead to a 10 per cent cut in pay rates that are already low. Then the costing of the fixed fees will move towards a system of competitive tendering. collapse
The lawyers say this is likely to close around 1,700 law firms and could lead to a collapse of the criminal defence system. They also point out that the Government is ignoring a report from Otterburn Legal Consulting, commissioned by the LSC, which showed that the financial health of many legal aid defence firms is “highly fragile”.
Roger Peach, who chairs the Criminal Defence Solicitors’ Union, said: “The Government intends to drive hundreds of legal aid firms out of business.
“This monopoly purchaser is performing an experiment without precedent, which will leave tens of thousands of people unable to access justice.”
Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, told the press: “We are demonstrating because we are at a loss to know how to make the Government listen to why their reforms will inflict irreparable damage to our justice system.
“There is an unfolding and unprecedented crisis in legal aid supply.” working to rule
Meanwhile more than 17,000 PCS members based in courts have been working to rule since the end of last year and this action is due to intensify at the end of March as a below inflation pay increase kicks in.
They share the lawyers’ fears that Government cuts are preventing the justice system from providing a proper service to the public. These concerns have been echoed by the Magistrates’ Association in a recent letter to the Prime Minister and leading members of the judiciary.
PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “There is a crisis affecting the funding of courts which is leading to cuts in jobs and the pay of our members. Voices from all sides in the justice system are calling for the Government to act to prevent the system disintegrating.
“So far, senior civil servants and ministers responsible for the justice system have refused to address our concerns. Industrial action is always a last resort but our members are angry about low pay and job cuts, so our action will intensify. “We are in touch with the Criminal Defence Service Union and, if necessary, will ensure we work together to make our action effective. As the prospect of more disruption in the civil service moves closer, civil service management and the Government need to begin to address the concerns of their own workforce who are a key part of the justice system. Let us get around the negotiating table to sort this out.”