Put the people who pay the bills first

I BELIEVE that the dispensing of justice is the most important role of government in a civilised society.

From the pie poudre courts of mediaeval England to today, the ability to solve disputes in a civilised way is essential to the maintenance of safety and order in this country.

The question is: what should the law deal with? Certainly the use of force and fraud against the citizen. But what of the new growth industries: injury compensation, industrial tribunals and divorce?

These areas are the result of intervention by government in matters of private dispute and would certainly not attract legal aid, if I had my way. I am convinced that people setting out on their second or third divorce should not qualify.

I suspect many readers will hate me for some of my remarks, which are not hearsay but based on personal experience. I have hardly been out of the courts ever since I became an MP!

When the UK's legal aid system was set up in 1948, the original cost to the Exchequer was to be £4.4 million, with some £2 million to be recovered in costs. The then Attorney General Sir Hartley Shawcross described it as "the charter of the little man to the Courts of Justice".

Like all government-funded systems, legal aid is open to abuse and a disproportionate amount is going to foreigners and fat cats. The legal aid bill now stands at £1.4 billion. This mainly goes into the pockets of lawyers. The growing cost to the Exchequer is coming under the beady eye of the Lord Chancellor, who is determined to get it down.

Ten years ago some 70 per cent of the population was entitled to legal aid. The figure is now only 50 per cent. Far fewer people receive legal aid than before, but the cost continues to rise. Free-market forces dictate that, if your demand is falling, you should supply at a lower price, but this is not happening.

The upside of this is that people can settle their disputes. The downside is that people are now encouraged to litigate, whereas before they used to grin and bear it.

The Government's intention is to replace the open-ended approach to legal aid with pre-determined budgets which can be allocated to meet local demand.

The only sensible reform is to promote a true market in the legal profession. Clients must have direct access to their barristers. The closed shop arrangement, whereby only solicitors or one of the other professionals can open the door to a barrister, must change.

When it comes to private clients, the minute you walk through the door you have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. Solicitors seem to be under no obligation to inform clients about costs or to present intelligible bills.

Just as you expect your builder or even your surgeon to give you a written estimate and stick to it, so solicitors should tell you the price for the job. They won't always get it exactly right; you have to take some of the rough with the smooth. But when the unexpected crops up, the client should be told before any obligation is entered into, even if this means dropping the case.

Price is a factor in making any decision in life and the thirst for justice may well be assuaged by the cost.

In my experience, solicitors produce huge amounts of paperwork, mainly for their own benefit or the benefit of a barrister, to whom – of course – the client is not allowed to put his or her own case direct. There would be a lot less of this if it was not charged at an hourly rate.

The only way for the client to challenge the bill is to go to another solicitor to sort out the mess – or risk being declared bankrupt for refusing to pay.

The accounting system used is entirely geared to the needs of the court and can be audited only by a taxing master. How many of you would challenge the plumber if you had to go through such a tortuous rigmarole?

Clients should also be made aware when they can do the work for themselves, for example, by using the small claims court.

And we should consider the the US system, where parties to a contract agree that, in case of dispute, both sides will abide by the decision of an arbitrator. All this would improve the image of the legal profession.

Most people think that solicitors are over-priced, over-protected and over-represented in Parliament! People say the same thing about MPs. It is up to all of us to see that we do not deserve this reputation.

I hope the profession will stop examining its own navel and focus on the people who pay the bills. Otherwise, a future Government may step in and "nationalise" the profession, just as we did with doctors. Something like this may be in the back of the Lord Chancellor's mind in his proposals to control the legal aid budget.