I suspect that many Conservatives may not put the problems of Legal Aid high on their political agenda, and for many years they may have ceded the ground to Labour who claim to "care” about the poor and disadvantaged. It is however a £2 billion budget and if that alone were not enough to ensure that Conservatives take interest, even our most unsympathetic supporters know injustice when they see it and none of them like Governmental inefficiency.
There are four current stories that might assist Conservatives when these matters are discussed.
Most Legal Aid practices are still small businesses. They have lost out doubly. By supplying a monopoly Government provider, their rate of remuneration has only been raised twice in the past 12 years – almost uniquely losing out on the general munificence of Labour towards those dependent on public funds. They are both lawyers and self employed and so, they are assumed to be “the rich”.
As they have chosen to work in this field the free marketeer might just leave their plight unacknowledged save for one thing. Twice this year the Legal Services Commission has blythely announced that they would not be paying their suppliers next month. It is bad enough that this is contrary to the Government's commitment to support small business, but when many of these firms are operating on overdraft with substantial overheads to pay, such insouciance is an outrage. The Law Society has had to write to the major banks on behalf of these members explaining that the collapse of cashflow is for no other reason than Government default on its contractual obligations. This from a Party that purported to look after the little people and to manage Government finances with "prudence' and "fairness".
One of the most difficult fields in which to secure countrywide cover for a vulnerable sector of society is that of Mental Health law. It is a complex area and one needs a substantial caseload both to maintain financial viability and to maintain expertise for one’s clients.
It has therefore come as a severe blow to those who have specialised in this difficult and poorly remunerated area of work to see the latest outcome of the bid round for future contracts. Firms with a history of competence and commitment had to re-tender for "matter starts” with new firms, some of whom may be sound but undoubtedly a number will represent those “dipping a toe in the water” seeking to expand their work without either experience or commitment. Unless you have the organisational structures and gearing for high volume, low profit work of this kind you will very soon drop out – particularly when the Legal Services Commission decides not to pay you every few months. It is one thing to meet the bureaucratic tender standards of Labour’s "tick box” approach to reform, quite another to deliver a quality efficient service in a changing legal field with a hostile financial environment. Many of the established firms are being allocated so fewer matter starts that their business model is wrecked. This is unlikely to much worry the LSC bureaucrats on significant salaries and gold plated pensions
If the clients could choose to go to the firms that service them well, then the market would deliver the proper outcome. However the LSC, having decided to exclude competent firms by restricting the number of cases they can attract, is distorting the market. We might be happy to see "survival of the fittest” but the problem here is that, in this model, the LSC is proposing to starve all the tigers to exhaustion before the hunt begins.
Behind all this concern however is the mentally ill client who may not receive the help and advice that is required.
It is not only the private sector that has been decimated by Labour’s incompetent managerialism.
One of the major Legal Charities, “Refugee and Migrant Justice“, has similarly seem its self fall into administration and 300 specialist solicitors legal officers and caseworkers are not only facing redundancy but being told to box up their work and await instructions from an incompetent Legal Services Commission that caused the collapse in the first place. They are prevented from passing the outstanding work to willing and able suppliers until the LSC decides where they wish to centrally direct the work. They do nothing fast. Meanwhile the cases of thousands of people, some of them vulnerable, many of them children, cannot proceed, and the knock on effect on cost and delay in the judicial system must be rocketing.
As part of their ”reforms” the LSC decided that those working in this field cannot be paid for their work in progress, but only at the end of the case. It is another of those Labour accountancy tricks to which George Osborne alluded when referring to the plain speaking approach which he adopted with the Budget Red Book. The proposal looked innocuous enough, but the outcome to a charity was catastrophic.
This is but a small part of the legacy of the Party that goes on ad nauseam about its commitment to fairness and the disadvantaged.
Meanwhile, thanks to a policy of driving the self employed specialist Children’s Guardians out of the Children and Families Court Advice and Support Services, and recruiting in their place junior Social Workers with but three years experience, there are over 1,000 children’s cases in London alone, awaiting the appointment of that vital independent officer to oversee the work of all other professionals and to keep the Court independently informed.
Even those who do not much advocate priority for resourcing this kind of work probably need to know about this so they can counter the bleeding heart rhetoric that come so frequently from the Labour benches.
We may need to support cuts in Legal Aid as well as anywhere else, but let there at least be an absence of bureaucratic stupidity, consultation with those who know the field and some honesty in place of what Labour actually delivered for the disadvantaged in the last 13 years where Access to Justice was concerned.