This evening we attended the Legal Aid Question Time organised by the Bar Council, and hosted by Joshua Rozenberg. On the panel were Andy Slaughter MP, Shadow Justice Minister; Maura McGowan, Chair the Bar Council; Lord McNally, Minister of State for Justice; and Steve Hynes, Director of the Legal Action Group. Here are our highlights from the debate.
A hysterical response?
We had the pleasure of asking the opening question. Did the panel agree with Lord McNally’s characterisation of the legal profession’s response to the consultation as ‘hysterical’? The panel did not agree. Lord McNally said that these changes had not been sprung on the legal profession, that there is ample room for the profession to adjust; and that even after these changes England and Wales will still have the most generous legal aid scheme in the world. He said he did not regret using the word ‘hysterical’. He did acknowledge however that the accusation that the proposals will reduce quality is a valid one, and one “we should look at”. He also appeared to accept that the government is aware that it is likely to face legal challenges in relation to its proposals.
Cost saving vs impact on society
A recurrent theme of Lord McNally’s responses was that these changes are motivated by cuts to the budget of the Ministry of Justice. He said he has seen a 23% cut in his budget, that “we have all taken hard hits”, and that it is only right that the legal profession must also bear the pain. Andy Slaughter said that if Labour were in power they would also reduce the legal aid budget, but that the issue is how. He listed some of the problems with these proposals as being that they remove competition, they will force the closure of three quarters of criminal defence firms, they will provide a financial incentive to legal representatives for their clients to plead guilty. He also condemned the proposals as an attack on people who do not otherwise have power, that will deprive them of the ability to seek redress in the courts.
Interestingly, Lord McNally appeared to accept that the changes will impact on the most vulnerable. He said “if you manage part of the tax payers’s money and you cut that budget, you are going to hit the poorest and most deprived in society.” Later he mentioned that there is also the overriding principle of access to justice, but that that shouldn’t prevent the profession from organising itself to be as efficient as possible for the tax payer.
Change without wrecking the system
Both Maura McGowan and Steve Hynes expressed their commitment to engaging with the government’s proposals in a constructive manner. Maura McGowan said that changes should be made where required, but she emphasised that there is a “substantial risk that criminal justice will be wrecked” if these proposals are implemented. Steve Hynes said that there are savings to be made, but warned that there would be constitutional implications if the proposals to limit the availability of legal aid for judicial review and prison law were implemented. He suggested we would look to Scotland where savings have been achieved in a different way.
One hour was not enough to satisfy the audience’s desire to put questions to the panel. Fortunately, Lord McNally said more than once that “it is a consultation and we will listen to responses”. The government has said it will respond to the consultation in the autumn. They are considering 16,000 responses. Assuming they do so in 3 months, the Ministry will have to consider over 260 responses each working day.
Legal Aid Question Time: highlights by Jon Mack
A letter to Lord McNally from up North
An Hysterical Question Time by a barrister at Argent Chambers
Legal Aid Question Time – 18 June 2013 by Gemma Blythe
Head of Legal’s comments “McNally: If you live in a bubble, you’re not going to persuade people”
Truthaholics’s writeup UK legal aid cuts: Natural justice faces a savage loss of innocence!