Legal Aid: time to end this stacked numbers game

Reaction to the government’s decision to continue with the second 8.75% cut to Legal Aid has been understandably negative. To rub salt into the wounds, income details for the Legal Aid chief swiftly followed in the Agency’s 2014-15 annual report.

All major players in the UK’s legal industry have vented frustration at the cut. But more than just being miffed, there’s massive concern for the sustainability of the industry, moving forward.

8.75% cut in Legal Aid

The letter from the Legal Aid minister announcing the 1st July as the day that the reduction in solicitors’ fees will take effect is available on the government’s website.

What seems obvious is the pattern that Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems saw in the election is going to continue in this government term. Namely, any bad news that the government will announce will be laid at the feet of the coalition.

Any good news, then you can be sure the new Conservative government will take credit.

Not that there’s any of the latter in the letter.

Who Do You Believe?

The arguments for imposing the second cut to Legal Aid seem contradictory to evidence Andrew Caplen from the Law Society has presented to the MoJ.

A quote from Mr Caplen in an article on the law gazette reads:

We have shared evidence with the MoJ from over 120 firms who are already suffering as a result of the previous round of cuts.

This evidence totally contradicts the detail in minister’s letter. The government’s decision to press on with the cuts suggested under the coalition has been based on consultation with third parties.

From those meetings, the first round of cuts to Legal Aid, according to the minister and his panel, has had no:

substantial negative impact on [the service’s] sustainability.

Pick you potato as to which one of those two you believe.

The letter also confirms that the tender to supply 527 duty provider contracts has been sent out. The net effect is that the 1,600 duty solicitors that were on 24/7 notice to police stations across the country has been reduced by over a third.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul the Boss

So, inflation is nil. Wages are increasing, a little over 3% on average across the country.

You can understand the backlash from the legal community when details of Legal Aid Agency’s boss Matthew Coats’ employment costs became public.

It’s perhaps not the £225,000 package that grates. That figure does, after all, encompass Coats’ role as director general for MoJ Justice Corporate Services.

It’s the percentage increase that will aggravate the industry, already struggling to recruit young lawyers to the bar. The £225k represents a 12.5% increase in cost to the taxpayer compared to Coats’ 2013/14 income.

All things considered, it will be those on low incomes who can’t afford a solicitor who’ll suffer most from further cuts to the Legal Aid budget. That they’re asked to pay an extra 12.5% to keep the boss of this vital (but depleting) public service in the manner he’s accustomed is an affront to justice on all levels, bar none.

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