Run courts for customers, says Boateng

The courts must no longer be run at the convenience of judges and lawyers, and “if they don't like it they can lump it”.

That was Labour legal affairs spokesman Paul Boateng's uncompromising message to the joint Law Society and Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference on legal aid, which was held last Thursday.

He called on the Law Society to do more to help the consumer who, he said, should come “first and foremost” in the justice system.

His message was echoed by Marlene Winfield, of the National Consumer Council, who called on the Law Society to introduce a quality accreditation scheme for legal aid lawyers.

“The Law Society has been slow to come up with any accreditation scheme, with the result that it has lost control to the Legal Aid Board,” she said.

There was widespread disquiet among lawyers at the conference about their future under the Government's planned reforms.

Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, said the proposals for block contracting, as outlined in the white paper, raised serious conflicts of interest, particularly for criminal solicitors, who would be paid the same amount whether the defendant pleaded guilty on first appearance in the magistrates court or not guilty in the crown court.

But Gary Streeter, parliamentary secretary at the

Lord Chancellor's Department, warned delegates that solicitors had better play a constructive role in legal aid reform. “I trust that you will not sacrifice the opportunity to influence change by trying to resist the inevitable,” he said.

“It is better to say 'yes, but' and sit down and talk than to shout 'no' from the sidelines and run the risk of being ignored,” he added.