From the president: Week beginning 8 April 2013
Week beginning: 8 April
Shaping alternatives to price competition for legal aid
We have now had the chance to consider in-depth the competitive tendering proposals the government published last Tuesday. The scale of the cuts proposed is shocking and, in our view, the proposal is unworkable.
Our key concerns are the unrealistic timetable, the freedom of choice of solicitor and the artificial cap on the share of the market that firms can be awarded.
- Timetable: The changes will require a major restructuring of the criminal defence market and do not allow our members time to do this. Under the proposals, firms would only be given three months from notification that they have a contract to undertake the restructuring and expansion required. Given that the successful firms will have to implement significant IT and infrastructure changes and, very likely, seek regulatory approval for changes to their structure, this is clearly not remotely achievable. Firms will be unlikely to be willing to make significant investment before the contract has been awarded.
- Freedom of choice of solicitor: The consultation proposes removing the freedom of choice of their solicitor from clients. We had understood that choice of solicitor was guaranteed under LASPO. Removal of freedom of choice will create additional work and cost, as firms will be required to start cases from scratch. Client choice does not just benefit the client; it provides competition and an incentive to keep standards high.
- Cap on the share of the market that firms can be awarded: There is unlikely to be sufficient volume to enable firms to absorb the cuts and take on the additional costs involved in adapting to the new arrangements.
We think that as these proposals stand, they will not work for the profession. We believe that our stance must be to:
- provide evidence to government showing the practicalities about why these proposals will not work,
- establish whether there are ways in which the proposals could be modified so that they can work for the profession or whether there are alternatives – for example, a simple across-the-board cut in fees, which would enable the profession to restructure itself, rather than work to an artificial and unsuitable exercise, and
- look at ways in which we can support those members of the profession who wish to continue to undertake criminal work, should we be unsuccessful in moving the government.
We have issued a consultation to the profession that seeks your views on the issues above. We will also be setting up a series of roadshows to inform the profession and hear your views during the course of late April and May.
We will be providing advice to the profession on responding to the consultation and on lobbying their MPs.
In the meanwhile, we will be closely examining the proposals and providing the best evidence to show to the government about how unworkable their proposals are and to suggest suitable alternatives.
We have not ruled out more serious action later on but, at this stage, we believe that it is in the interests of our members and of the criminal justice system to engage with the proposals and provide evidence and reasoned alternatives to the government.
We need you to help by responding to the consultation, engaging with the proposals and providing evidence to help us show the government its errors.
Against this, we need to remember that the government has to make significant savings and that there is significant political will at the highest level to implement some form of tendering, which is different from what we have seen on earlier occasions. The question for the government is not whether these savings should be made, but how they should be made. We do know the government has said it will listen to proposals that will achieve those savings but in a different way.
Commonwealth Law Conference
The chief executive, Desmond Hudson and I arrived in South Africa at the Commonwealth Law Conference. This biennial conference exists to promote and maintain the rule of law throughout the Commonwealth by ensuring an independent and efficient legal profession. The theme this year is: Common Challenges – Common Solutions: Commonwealth, Commerce and Ubuntu. ‘Ubuntu’ is a term used in South Africa to denote humaneness, social justice, fairness and conformity with basic norms. It has particular resonance with the Commonwealth’s values of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and good governance. I will write more about this next week after the conference has finished.
Visit to firms in Buckinghamshire
On Monday, we went to Buckinghamshire to visit a number of firms, including two who have taken the option to become an alternative business structure (ABS). My own firm has recently received approval from the SRA to operate as an ABS, so I was interested to hear how other people had fared through the application process and why they had decided to convert. It gave me confidence to see how solicitors were addressing the commercial realities of the new market and looking at how they can provide legal services to their local communities and, as a result, were cautiously optimistic about their futures.
All the firms I visited had a positive approach to equality and diversity and all had embraced the benefits that flexible working can bring to recruiting and retaining the most talented pool of employees.
Many newly qualified solicitors, and their families, tell us how much they enjoy their admissions ceremony – a chance to mark the start of a new stage in their lives and celebrate a lot of hard work. There are many solicitors who never went through this rite of passage, and some tell us they regret this, so we have developed an admissions ceremony for solicitors added to the roll prior to 2009.
This unique admissions ceremony is tailored to solicitors who missed their chance when newly qualified, and would now like to celebrate their success in qualifying and in practice, with their friends and family.
The ceremony takes place at the Law Society in London, where you will be presented to the Law Society’s president or senior office holder.
Following the ceremony, you are invited to a special drinks reception for you and your guests.
President of the Law Society of England and Wales