City lawyers get behind legal aid campaign

The City of London Law Society (CLLS) has joined the fight to defend access to justice in publicly-funded legal work following Government proposals to slash legal aid funding.

In an open letter to the president of the Law Society Lucy Scott-Moncrieff on Monday, chairman of the CLLS Alasdair Douglas said that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proposals threatened to irrevocably damage the justice system (10 June 2010).

He said that finding a workable alternative to the proposals was important “not only for the future of the legal and business sector, but also for the reputation of the English legal system in the many overseas markets we serve.”

CLLS welcomed the Law Society’s alternative proposals to legal aid reforms but called for quality to be top of the agenda, rather than compromising between price, quality and client choice.

“If there is a single nexus of the issues of access to justice and the rule of law, it comes in the form of judicial review,” Douglas wrote.

As part of the legal aid reforms, the MoJ is proposing only to fund judicial review applications if they are successful (10 June 2013).

“To correlate failure at the permission stage with an unmeritorious claim, and hence to refuse funding, is to compare apples and oranges, and is anyway a grossly disproportionate measure,” Douglas wrote.

The letter came amid responses to Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announcing a U-turn on the proposal to remove legal aid clients’ right to choose their solicitor.

Writing to the chair of the justice committee Sir Alan Beith on Monday, Grayling said: “The rationale for [the proposal to remove client choice] was to give greater certainty of case volume for providers, making it easier and more predictable for them to organise their businesses to provide the most cost-effective service to the taxpayer – it is not a policy objective in its own right.”

He went on to say that respondents to the legal aid consultation had clearly stated that they felt choice was “fundamental to the effective delivery of criminal legal aid” and therefore he would reconsider the issue and expects to make changes that will allow legal aid clients a choice of solicitor.

Responding to the announcement in a statement, chairman of the Bar Maura McGowan QC welcomed the change of heart but added that the Bar Council stood with many in the legal community who believe that “price competitive tendering in any form is not a suitable mechanism for allocating legal aid contracts.”

“Legal aid contracts should not just go to the bidders who are willing to do the work for the lowest price,” she said.

In the letter Grayling also said that following a meeting with the Law Society last week, he has agreed to “explore further the proposals they have put forward to consolidate the market in stages”.

Scott-Moncrieff said that Law Society had come up with an alternative to the MoJ’s proposals, which dispenses with price competitive tendering for criminal legal aid contracts, allows the client to choose their own solicitor, ensures sufficient quantity and maintains quality.

“I won’t pretend that our alternative, if adopted, will result in flags waving in every solicitor firm – it is in many respects the least worse solution” Scott-Moncrieff said, adding that she was satisfied that the Law Society’s proposals set out a workable future for criminal legal aid clients, within the parameters set by the government.

Grayling’s U-turn comes just days after the Save UK Justice petition hit the 100,000 signatures required for consideration by the backbench business committee for debate (28 June 2013).

Grayling will appear before the Commons Justice Select Committee on Wednesday (3 July).