I understand this note was compiled by the Leader of the Midlands and Oxford Circuit
NOTE OF MEETING WITH LORD CHANCELLOR
LC began by saying that he was surprised that the Bar was not engaging in the consultation process with him. He said that this in distinction to the Law Society who had come up with a set of proposals and were actively debating them with him.
We pointed out that we were engaging with him. The Bar was responsible for a large number of the responses that he had received to his consultation document and contained many reasons why what he proposed was not in the public interest. The responses contained a number of ways in which significant sums could be saved without cutting legal aid payments. We said that we were not prepared to engage in, for example, a debate as to how standards could be maintained in a PCT scheme because we took the view that such a scheme was so fundamentally flawed that no effective scheme could be devised to protect standards within it.
We asked him where the consultation process had so far led him. He said that there would be another shorter consultation period in the Autumn – probably September. The length of that consultation had not yet been decided but would be no longer than 6 weeks. He said that the shape of the new consultation package was not yet decided as the Department was still reading some of the responses to the original consultation.
LC said that as far as the position of the solicitors is concerned, some of them had initially come to him and asked for a straight pay cut without PCT. He told us that he had told them that a pay cut without structural change was a non-starter. He said that they had then come back to him with their current proposals.
We spoke about choice. He said that he had some time ago decided that the idea of “no choice” was inappropriate. He said that it had been part of the original proposal as he thought that the successful bidders in any PCT auction would need to be assured of volume of work. He said that solicitors had told him that they could work with a system that included the right to chose. He said that the re-introduction of choice does not mean that PCT was dead but that in fact new models were being considered.
The LC said that he wanted to reduce the amount of red tape surrounding the legal profession generally. We welcomed this.
The LC said that he wanted to “streamline the process”. By this he meant that he thought that money could be saved by having fewer cases listed for mention unnecessarily, doing some preliminary hearings over the phone or the net etc. We pointed out that this would be in our interests as we did not get paid a separate fee for mentions anymore. We also pointed out that streamlining in this way depended more on the cooperation of judges than it did on the bar. He said that he thought that Thomas LJ was eager to devise ways to help on this point.
We asked whether he had rethought his proposals on VHCC – in particular his plan to cut the rates payable to people who were already part way through preparing a case. He said that he intended to stick with this idea. We pointed out that many silks who had such contracts running at the moment had already expressed an intention to return briefs if this came about. He said that he thought that the amounts payable under VHCC contracts made this unlikely in his view. He confirmed that if they did so fresh counsel would have to be instructed to prepare the case.
We pointed out to him that VHCC was a scheme introduced by government and that the Bar had on a number of occasions in the past suggested a scheme (GradFee Plus) that would save a lot of money on admin costs alone. He said that, following some of the consultation responses on this subject, the government had looked out the original GradFee Plus documents from the Bar Council and were studying them again.
We discussed the new fee structure used by the CPS with its reduced reliance on page counting. LC asked us whether such a scheme would find favour with the Bar as it might result in administrative savings. We said that the Bar’s response would likely depend on the figures in the boxes. We warned him that the Bar would be against a change like this if it was just a veneer for reducing our fees but that, if the only saving was administrative, it was perhaps a more acceptable way for him to save money than a fee cut.
We said that we had an expert report which suggested to us that the spending on legal aid was going to be much lower in years to come than anticipated given the reduction in work and the changes that were still working their way through the system – fee cuts over the last three years, EGPS etc. He said that his figures suggested that this was not so but said that if we wanted to submit any fresh data to him for consideration he would be happy to look at it.
LC suggested that we should look at ways in which he could help to ensure that work was still coming to the Bar. He said that if we were right and quality of advocacy at the Bar was so much higher than that of solicitors perhaps we should look for a way of ensuring that only advocates of real quality were able to take on serious criminal cases. We repeated our view that QASA was not a means of properly controlling quality. He suggested that we should consider a respected figure being appointed to look at the questions of recruitment to the Bar and the solicitors profession and at control of quality in the Crown Court. We said that we would consider this idea.
LC offered to set up a working party with the Bar to look at how the criminal justice system could be streamlined to avoid time wasting. We again said that we would consider this.