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Marlene Winfield is senior policy officer at the Consumer Council.
The second reading of the Access to Justice Bill in the House of Lords saw the legal establishment out in full strength. No wonder the issue of consumer interest in the justice system so often takes a back seat when lawyers dominate parliamentary debate.
Too few non-lawyers spoke in the debate and most of those who did were suspiciously uncritical. Along with welcome changes, there are potential problems with the proposals that badly need objective scrutiny. For example, there is a serious lack of transparency in the way funding priorities will be identified and legal services rationed. And it is yet to be confirmed whether the incoming conditional fees have sufficient safeguards to protect the inexperienced clients, or will be sufficiently suitable for those on low incomes, to be a substitute for legal aid.
But a disproportionate amount of debate time was taken up by senior barristers making a last ditch effort to protect their virtual monopoly of advocacy in the higher courts, where only a small proportion of trials take place. One barrister confidently declared: "No one man [sic] can prepare cases and then present them in court", despite the fact that this is exactly what happens almost everywhere else in the western world.
Solicitors were in evidence too, rallying against plans to limit legal aid to firms with contracts. There was scant acknowledgement that the lack of guidance about expertise and quality has been a serious problem for potential clients. Some solicitors seemed prepared to go to the wall to protect the right of the inexperienced to choose the wrong lawyer.
One of the worrying aspects of the debate was that it highlighted just how out of touch some peer practitioners appeared to be - many failed to recognise how our justice system fails ordinary people. One barrister, who argued that it was in the consumer interest to ensure lawyers were "adequately rewarded", said: "We are not here to support or maintain any existing structure of the legal profession if it is failing the public. That is the question: is it failing the public in any sense other than it is expensive?"
Wherever there is a danger that lawyer parliamentarians are blinkered by self-interest, it is imperative that lay peers and MPs wade in on behalf of the end users.
In the whole six hours of debate, no truer words were spoken than those in Lord Sawyer's statement. As he so succinctly explained: "Access to the law and to justice is too important to be left to lawyers".