Those who follow my posts on Twitter or Facebook will have seen that I, with many other people, am hugely disappointed with the actions of the Law Society this week. In this post I will try to set out why, and where we should go from here.
Where we were
The last seven days have been truly momentous. Just over a week ago the Backbench debate was held on the floor of the House of Commons. It was a debate that Her Majesty’s Government had not wanted to take place. However, democracy prevailed and a number of MPs from all parties used the time allocated to backbenchers to secure proper debate of the proposals for legal aid.
The striking thing about that debate was the number of MPs from all parties who spoke powerfully and eloquently in favour of the need for access to justice, and in total opposition to many aspects of the Transforming Legal Aid proposals. One significant thing to come out of the debate was the offer of an Opposition Day for there to be a more comprehensive debate with a division of the House.
Bearing in mind that by that stage the political reality was that the Labour Party was fully against the Government plans, the Liberal Democrats had also come out against it at a very senior level (Nick Clegg expressed doubts, the Deputy Leader opposed them vigorously, and so did the Party’s President), and many Conservative MPs were greatly concerned, there must have been very significant pressure on the MOJ for there to be a rethink. The appearance was that if there was a vote in the House, the Government would have faced a split in the Coalition, rebellion from several of its own backbenchers, and it would in all probability have been defeated.
Then on Friday, the #saveUKjustice e-petition passed the symbolic 100,000 signature mark. Whilst technically this merely means that there can be further pressure on the Backbench Business Committee to hold another debate, it is still a hugely important milestone. I doubt that the Government thought that lawyers would be able to gather enough support from the public to reach that level.
Added to all that is the fact that in the preceding weeks there had been hundreds of blog articles and newspaper reports highlighting the issues and raising profile, and several normally loyal newspapers had come out in support of the lawyers’ campaign.
The response to the Consultation, too, was totally unprecedented. 16,000 or more responses, totally united in opposition, all the way from the President of the Supreme Court, through the senior judiciary in the Judicial Executive Board (headed by the Lord Chief Justice), the Crown Court judges and Magistrates, all the professional lawyers’ organisations and a host of charities, representative bodies, and individuals.
Against this is a backdrop of continued and repeated failure in Government contracting exercises, with the interpreter shambles bringing the idiocy of Government actions into sharp focus, as expressed passionately in the debate the previous week. Sir Alan Beith MP described the potential for a “multiple train crash” if the process of reforming legal aid followed the same path as other contracting exercises.
That in a period of 14 days the various Justice Ministers had to face hostile questioning from MPs and Committees on no less than three occasions must have made this a very difficult period.
The climax of all this was to be the appearance of The Lord Chancellor before the Justice Select Committee. He will have been expecting a truly bruising and uncomfortable session in which cross-party MPs, having heard evidence from lawyers on 11 June, asked him detailed questions about his Department’s plans.
We had the Government on the ropes. They had lost most of the arguments. Any attempt to push the preferred PCT option through would have looked totally unreasonable and would have been politically unacceptable.
The will on the part of the professions was there to resist these changes. The mood is that we have had enough. We provide an enormously valuable public service. We often do it unpaid, late at night. The extra unpaid hours keep the system moving. Without our efforts there is no system. It depends on us.
We have in the last few weeks managed to convince a large section of the public, most of the media, and many politicians of the merits of our arguments. If it had come to industrial action of some kind our position could be understood and the impact would be enormously powerful and felt very quickly.
This is a battle which can be won. We were winning hands down. I doubt that MOJ had any idea at all that that would be the case. No doubt they thought the public would buy the fat cat argument and the proposals would pass unnoticed or with indifference. How wrong they were!
It was, therefore, particularly galling to see that on Monday of this week the Law Society chose to reveal its hand. It broke ranks from the unified professions, and in the perception of many of its members – I would stick my neck out and say the vast majority of rank and file criminal solicitors – offered Mr Grayling a way out.
The Law Society plan says nothing at all to resist the cuts the Government wishes to impose. Implicitly it accepts them. It simply says that they will be imposed and suggests ways in which firms might adapt. Whilst the Bar have been proposing ways in which the Government can save money and improve the efficiency of the system at the same time without affecting legal aid, the Law Society plan accepts the Government’s case.
The Society would dispute this, but the plans very firmly benefit larger providers over the smaller ones. There is no acceptance that in many cases smaller providers are more efficient and more adaptable than the larger ones, nor any express recognition or regret that hundreds of firms will be forced to close by their intervention, and thousands of duty solicitors will face redundancy or pay cuts. It is no coincidence that the Big Firms Group were extensively involved in drafting and approving the proposals. The plans benefit the owners of big firms to a hugely disproportionate extent – they benefit from a contraction of the market as smaller firms are forced to sell their practices to the larger operators, or close altogether, and they benefit from the change to the duty solicitor rules, enabling them to reduce their costs base by sacking or demoting many expensive duty solicitors. In some cases this variety of market consolidation could result in less firms in a given area than envisaged under Mr Grayling’s plan.
In their recent attempts to spin their way out of this crisis, the great and the good of the Law Society have denied this. They say that the proposals, if accepted, would protect solicitors from the threat of price competition, that efforts are being made to ease the transition to the new system, that the proposals had been discussed with a wide variety of representative groups, and that there has been no agreement to cuts.
I disagree. The Law Society position throughout this campaign has been to concede that the Government has to, and will, make cuts. Where the Bar has said there need be no cuts because equivalent amounts or larger could be saved or gained from tackling inefficiencies in the system, and the real cost drivers in the CJS, the Law Society just accepted the austerity agenda without ever once challenging it. They were of the view that the Government would not listen to anything else.
To see the damage it is only necessary to look at the opening remarks of Mr Grayling before the Justice Committee. What he said was:
[The Law Society] have said that they accept that we face a very large financial challenge, and they have also accepted the need for consolidation of their sector. They have submitted to us a very interesting proposal as a possible alternative model, which still contracts the marketplace, and we have said we will engage in constructive discussion with them about that.
*These remarks are taken from the as yet uncorrected transcript of the hearing before the JSC.
Mr Grayling then went on to make unfavourable comparisons with the position adopted by the Bar. He portrayed the Bar as unconstructive, and ungrateful because he could have introduced “one case one fee” but had not. Solicitors good, barristers bad.
There have apparently been a number of meetings between the Law Society and the MOJ. It was reported on Twitter that following the JSC hearing the MOJ officials went straight back to Chancery Lane.
So in one fell swoop the Law Society managed to defuse the JSC hearing for Mr Grayling, make it more difficult to argue that cuts are unjustified, deprive the public of the opportunity of having the criminal justice system fully reviewed to remove inefficiencies, divide the Bar from the solicitors, alienate the majority of their members, take the wind out of the #saveukjustice campaign, and divide their members between those who support their proposals (big firms) and everyone else.
Of course, I am not surprised. I knew the Law Society was the weak link. That’s why I penned an open letter to them at the start of this campaign. Their thinking was clear from the tone of their campaigning pack – the first few pages of which make the Government’s case for austerity, rather than make the case for hardworking and dedicated legal aid lawyers – and their response to my open letter was totally defeatist. They would of course say “realistic”.
Pessimists will always say that they are realistic and that those who do not accept their bleak assessment are dreamers. If the “realists” had had their way humankind would still be living in caves. Women would never have got the vote. Nelson Mandela would still be in prison. The Berlin Wall would still be standing.
It is the passion, vision and courage of those who dare to think differently that drives progress. It is the determination of those who do not accept the conventional wisdom that changes the course of history. Here it has been the efforts of a thousand individual lawyers and others that has changed the political reality: politicians got on board and scrutinised the proposals because so many people wrote to them to express their concern, passionately but reasonably. The media got the story because so many people got in touch with them. If I might take a little credit, the first post on this blog shaped the campaign and led to the first national newspaper coverage of this issue. My individual effort counted. The effort of Rachel Bentley in starting the petition counted. The work of everyone who has taken part in the campaign has made a difference. Look at what we can achieve when we work together!
All of that was lost on the Law Society. It is as if the past months never happened. Their stance has not changed since the initial days of the campaign. In spite of all the progress they still think that Mr Grayling could impose his preferred version of PCT because “there is the political will to do so” (In other words because they had a meeting with him and he said he would.)
Why this is wrong
This is wrong. It is wrong because it accepts arguments which in truth have no merit. It is wrong because it allows the system to carry on as inefficiently as ever yet saddles the hardworking lawyers with the entirety of the cost. It is wrong because larger firms are not always better and choice for the public will be diminished. It is wrong because it is detrimental to individual solicitors who have worked hard to achieve their qualifications, only to find their value diminished to benefit big business. It is wrong because solicitors who built up businesses serving their local community will find themselves forced from above to alter the way they provide those services, or even to close down altogether. It is wrong because they have made it easier rather than harder for Mr Grayling to get his own way.
It is also wrong to think that Mr Grayling could act as he threatened. Faced with a passionately well-argued campaign supported by pretty much everyone with any knowledge, and faced with opposition both from within and without the Coalition, my view is that Mr Grayling would have found a way to shelve the more controversial proposals. He conceded on choice not because the Law Society capitulated, but because he had lost the argument and he knew it. With time there would have been other concessions. Even if cuts ultimately had been imposed, they would have cut less deeply.
Finally, it is wrong because there was no mandate whatsoever to make these proposals. Here the Society was going to Government and conceding that (a) cuts are required, in other words that solicitors are paid too much, and (b) that there are too many firms and a large number should be closed or otherwise removed.
You only have to look at comments on recent articles on the Law Society Gazette about this issue to see how little this view is supported.