Since the autumn of 2009, the Ministry of Justice has been actively considering how to cut the legal aid budget.
During the last 6 months solicitors from The Johnson Partership have met with both Jack Straw and Ken Clarke to lobby for sensible and workable arrangements to surround any reductions in legal aid rates.
We are committed to a 3 point agenda which should enable the Ministry to deliver such cuts as it has to, but which will ensure a high level of access to justice for those who need it.
1. Any reduction in fees has to be accompanied by an increase in the number of cases being handled by the remaining firms dealing with legally aided work. The government’s reduction in public spending may of course lead to an increase in the levels of crime. A more desirable way of increasing volume and overall efficiency would be to reduce the number of firms authorised to provide legally aided services in each area.
2. Any reduction of fees must be accompanied by the reduction in interference of government agencies. Solicitors are already governed by the Solicitors’ Regulation Authority. If conveyancing, probate, commercial or personal injury work is being carried out by a solicitor in England and Wales, the quality of service and the solicitors’ ability to deliver are monitored by the SRA. Legally aided solicitors have to face multiple layers of regulation and monitoring not only from the SRA, but also by way of peer review,quality audits and costs audits. Where a government wants legal aid firms to cut profit margins to the very minimum, there is no scope for fee earners and supervisors to be involved in this sort of unpaid, time-consuming box ticking.
3. Where a reduction in fees has to be accompanied by proof that central government is committed to paying its bills on time. Now that the billing process has been streamlined and many fees standardised, there can be no excuse for delaying payment by as much as 6 to 8 months. If firms are to survive further legal aid cuts they will have to have a guaranteed stream of regular and promised payments.
Digby Johnson and Ian Boddy have been involved in meetings with both the current Ministryof Justice and his predecessor to ensure that the terms of this blueprint for survival are set out as clearly as possible to those at the highest level.