The Government has recently announced proposals to introduce price competitive tendering (PCT) to the criminal Legal Aid market. These proposals are terrifying lawyers nationwide, not just because they will see at least 1200 of the 1600 firms that currently hold contracts to undertake criminal Legal Aid work cease to exist, but because of the impact they will have on our justice system.
The proposals are complex and impossible to summarise in a few lines, but in essence what will happen is that firms will have to bid for a contract with the Legal Aid Agency and the winning firms will then be allocated cases. People will not be able to choose who their solicitor is. There are very few contracts up for grabs hence why so many criminal lawyers (and their paralegals, administrative staff, even cleaners) will literally be jobless overnight. The ‘winning’ bidders will have had to bid at such a low level, doing the job properly will be impossible. They will be paid a fixed fee per case.
I am speechless about the fact that there is not one mention of the quality of the service to be provided in the entire proposal. This is explained by the Government’s Impact Assessment which, at paragraph 23, states:
“Client choice may in certain circumstances (where quality is easy to measure and clients have good information about the relative effectiveness of different providers) give an incentive to provide a legal aid service of a level of quality above the acceptable level specified by the LAA, as firms effectively compete on quality rather than price. The removal of choice may reduce the extent to which firms offer services above acceptable levels. We will ensure that quality does not fall below acceptable levels by carefully monitor(ing) quality and institute(ing) robust quality assurance processes to ensure it does not fall to an unacceptable level. We will also work with regulators to ensure they are aware of such a risk and through the enforcement of the relevant Codes of Conduct, identify and address any shortfall in standards.” (My amendments; clearly neither a well-drafted nor well-considered document.)
In plain English, what this means is that myself and my colleagues are presently doing too good a job. The standard of work we do is too high! The Government is therefore going to stop people choosing who represents them. Then we won’t need to do such a good job because there will be absolutely no incentive to do so; no possibility of the client transferring to another firm and no prospect of any repeat business.
A two-tier system will clearly be created, whereby the rich will be able to afford to pay for their own choice of legal representation (assuming there are any decent lawyers left!) and the less well-off (including the most vulnerable) members of our democratic society will have a legal representative dumped upon them. They will be stuck with this legal representative throughout the whole process. This legal representative’s only aim will be to complete the case as cheaply as possible, thus maximising the profits for their firm (or, more likely, supermarket chain/G4S). Even if the individual lawyer wants to act in their client’s best interests and do the job to a high standard, they will be completely prevented from doing so by their employer for cost reasons.
The Government is quite happy to promote the misconception that people like me earn lots of money for getting criminals off serious charges when these criminals should, in fact, be in prison. This could not be further from the truth. The minimum wage for trainee solicitors is Â£16,650, as set by our regulator, the SRA. Qualified criminal defence solicitors then earn anything from Â£18,000 to Â£45,000 dependant on other qualifications and experience. We work very long hours for relatively little remuneration, dealing with often very difficult clients, complicated areas of law and highly unpleasant subject matters. I leave no stone unturned. I do this because I believe that it is a person’s fundamental right to have a fair trial, and because I believe in justice. The police do get it wrong sometimes, you know.
I read somewhere today that the criminal justice system costs the taxpayer a ‘whopping’ 11pence per day. The government should quite frankly be telling the public what a good deal they are getting! We have some of the best lawyers in the world, both prosecution and defence, ensuring that justice is done. The Government, and UK citizens, should have great pride in our justice system and the professionals who make it so.
At the end of the day, this boils down to money. I can be succinct about my thoughts on that: EVERYTHING that is being proposed will end up costing more. (Incidentally, the figures the Government are using to ‘justify’ these cuts are incorrect on several levels, but that’s something for another day.) The government will achieve the polar opposite of what they are setting out to do and the impact on our justice system is unthinkable. Our justice system is envied the world over. It will be destroyed. Be assured that there will be a dramatic increase in both the number of miscarriages of justice and of those who are guilty walking free.
Think I’m making some valid points but not sure how it could possibly affect you? ‘Normal’ people get arrested every day. Just a few examples which spring to mind: caught up in a fight in a pub or at a football match, girl makes accusations of rape against you, a silly post on a social media site, someone runs across the road and you run them over, a row at home gets out of hand. It could easily be you or someone you care about.
We can’t always control what happens in our lives but we can ensure we have the choice about who represents us when our liberty and, in reality, our whole life is at stake. All solicitors are not equal. Generations of solicitors at Farleys have worked long and hard to cement the firm’s reputation. Our reputation is why our clients choose us when they find themselves in a tricky situation, and why they then recommend us to others. Client choice is what ensures our service is well above that ‘acceptable’ level the Government expect us to provide.
Then of course there are the indirect impacts. These cuts will affect all small-medium sized law firms, people will lose their jobs, whole firms will disappear. Want Tesco to write your will for you? Thought not. It is not just “criminals” who will lose the right to choose their solicitor.
I hope you have stuck with my ramblings to the end. I hope you are truly horrified by what you have read. Believe me, there is a lot more to it than what I have written here. Have a quick google and you will see it is not just me who is incensed by these proposals, and other people are writing about other aspects of them.
What can you do to preserve your right (and that of future generations) to choose who represents you? Tell everyone you know about this. Use social media. Write to your MP and to the local and national media. If you do nothing else, please sign the e-petition here (it only takes a minute) and share the link.
By Katy Parkinson, Trainee Solicitor