The Prime Minister and the ‘legal aid gravy train’

It is a sign of just how bad things have become that Tony Blair considered legal aid lawyers such worthy adversaries as to take a pop at the so-called “legal aid gravy train” in his conference speech last week. It was also a painful reminder of the huge mismatch between the public perception of a profession made rich at the taxpayers’ expense (and the political value of such an observation) and the reality of the exodus of once committed lawyers from publicly-funded areas of law.

Only last week LawZone reported on the shocking Citizens Advice report about the increasing “desertification” of the country, where “the poor and socially excluded wander in ever-increasing circles looking for help”. It revealed that in Leatherhead in Surrey there is not one single legal aid solicitor and that there were no housing solicitors offering legal aid in Kent. No evidence of a legal aid gravy train there then.

Nor was there any evidence of it at a meeting of several hundred criminal defence lawyers at Friends House in North London on Friday (3 October). These were not the BMW-driving defence lawyers as caricatured by Government ministers, but a dispirited collection of lawyers totally fed-up with a decade-long pay-freeze and the suffocating red tape of the new audit regime. Now defence lawyers are facing what they regard as a further insult: a paycut in the form of the new legal aid contract.

“Nobody in their right mind would sign a contract that would effectively put them out of business, and this contract, as currently proposed, will put an enormous number of firms out of business,” Ged Hale, of Yorkshire firm GV Hale & Co, told The Lawyer a few weeks ago. “It creates the sort of legal aid advice deserts that exist in family and housing law.”

Indeed, that was the view of most of his colleagues when, in an almost unanimous vote, they agreed not to sign up to the new legal aid contract as proposed by the Government. Refusing to put pen to paper would mean that they would not be able to represent defendants at the public expense and that, in turn, would bring the criminal justice system to a juddering halt. Of course, we have been to the brink before, a couple of years ago, but lawyers are more resolved than ever now.

As one delegate said: “The real problem is that the Government doesn’t understand or value the work you do in many respects.” No one at the meeting was likely to disagree with the observation, but what was worrying was that it came straight from the boss – Richard Collins, director of the Criminal Defence Service.