As the political temperature increases in the run-up to spring's general election, it will be interesting to see what happens to legal aid, its funding and development.
The Government's agenda was set out in the recent white paper. It includes radical changes in the delivery of the service, making it more structured and involving larger firms – though not exclusively so. Broadly speaking, if the Government's current proposals are implemented it would ensure that the majority of the budget remains in the hands of private practitioners for the foreseeable future, though some would go private. While some of the details may be unattractive, that fact is the one to fix on when considering alternatives.
And what are the alternatives? There is no real detail in what is proposed by either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. What has escaped into the public domain appears to indicate that they would move greater sums into the public sector than is currently the case. However, given all the parties' budget capping intentions, the implication is that less will be available for private practitioners. That again is a principal fact to focus on and to remember in the ensuing debate.
I recently spoke in Vancouver at the Commonwealth Law Conference on the issue of legal aid and its funding. A number of points became clear. The first was considerable envy at the size of our budget – it is many times the size of those available to other Commonwealth countries. Another was that, in all the countries, some change is inevitable.
The popular move appears to be to show interest in the public sector, rather than the private, as the vehicle to deliver legal services to individuals. The private sector is considered to be expensive as well as inefficient in delivering such services.
In Canada, and particularly in Quebec province, there is considerable reliance upon the public sector. Indeed, one speaker at the conference was of the view that only the public sector could deliver the kind of services needed at a price the taxpayer can afford.
The private sector in this country has been extremely fortunate, to date, in being the main beneficiary of the legal aid budget. And hopefully the Law Society will be aware of the risk of its present policy of fighting the Government to a standstill on its proposals while hoping that better things are around the corner.
It will be clear from what I have said that I do not believe we have the right policy. But what might be around the corner could be far worse for the practitioner in the High Street than anything that is currently proposed.
It is a difficult call to make but my choice would be to negotiate on what is presently on offer rather than hope for something better being on the table in, say, a year's time.
There are those who say that whatever deal is struck with this Government would be overturned by a different Government. I do not believe this. If a deal was struck with this Government and acted upon, it would be in no one's interest to see the outcome of that deal before seeking to overturn it and put something else in its place.
I only hope the new leadership at Chancery Lane is aware of the crucial nature of the decision that must now be made. If they get it wrong, the impact upon the private practitioner will be irreversible.