Reportage

Just what did Lord Irvine mean by extending a 15 per cent pay rise in legal aid rates to just the Solicitors Family Law Association (SFLA) while ignoring the Law Society's own family law panel?

Many family law practitioners believe that the Lord Chancellor is cutting costs and relishing an opportunity to have a pop at the Law Society. Of course, there are others who think that it is an accurate reflection of the difference in quality.

Certainly, it is a blow to those that qualified for the Law Society's panel, which has been up and running for just two years. Peter Watson-Lee, chairman of the Law Society's family law committee, says: “Many family law panel members are totally up in arms. They feel they've been ignored or downgraded.”

When the legal aid rate rises were first unveiled in January, they were welcomed as a long-overdue thawing of a five-year pay freeze. However, many lawyers felt that it was a case of too little, too late, and certainly nowhere near enough to reverse the exodus of lawyers from publicly-funded work.

One SFLA member says: “Finally the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) has realised that family solicitors do a good and worthwhile job, and that ultimately, doing family law work is a form of social welfare law that is necessary for society. It's also a recognition of market forces – there were enough people leaving legal aid to make it do something about it.”

Under the plans, family lawyers doing publicly-funded work will receive a 10 per cent increase to their fees, while the SFLA and members of the Law Society's children law panel have been granted 15 per cent increases.

What infuriates Watson-Lee and many other practitioners is that the pay rise has gone to such a small number of people. There are 3,500 family law panel members compared with only 328 lawyers on the SFLA panel. “I don't think it's going to stop people leaving legal aid work,” he says. “In fact, it's only going to accelerate it.” The Law Society has announced that it plans to introduce a second tier of accreditation for members missing out on the payrise.

But the issue strikes at the heart of what specialist accreditation is supposed to be all about. What was the point in the Law Society drawing up a scheme and practitioners devoting their time and energies to it if it is not going to be taken seriously by the Government?

The Law Society and the SFLA used to work together on a panel but were unable to agree and talks came to a halt in 1997. The Law Society opted for a broad church by extending membership to those that spent only one-third of their time (or 350 hours in the three preceding years) on matrimonial law. In contrast, the SFLA expected its members to devote at least 550 hours a year.

Rosemary Carter, chairman of the SFLA, says: “The Law Society panel is more of a generalist accreditation, whereas ours is looking for the true specialist.” She adds that the difference is basically “apples and pears”. But she also says that there might be a “treasury equation” in the Government's thinking.

However, many practitioners believe that the SFLA standards are pitched so high as to be elitist and that they are certainly not aimed at the average high-street firm with a large legal aid client base. Many family law practitioners bitterly resent the fact that, perhaps after a career practising nothing other than matrimonial law, they are being forced to take yet another set of exams.

Last month, Claire Jones at Wakefield firm Jones-Goodall announced that she would judicially review the LCD decision if the offer was not extended to the family law panel. She believes that the typical SFLA panel member is based in the South East and is not even doing legal aid. So why give them the pay rise? “To be frank, to try to encourage them to do legal aid work was a sop to solicitors in London,” she says.

If that is true, then it is hardly fair on those firms which have stuck with their legal aid clients. “I am doing legal aid work as a gesture of good will to the community and I'm just not being paid a fair rate for it,” says Jones. No doubt, that will be a sentiment that many of her peers will agree with.