In March 2013 George Osborne’s introduction to his Budget speech included these words: “This is a Budget for those who aspire to own their own home; who aspire to get their first job; or start their own business; a Budget for those who want to save for their retirement and provide for their children. It is a Budget for our Aspiration Nation.”
He went on to refer to the positive steps the Government would take in order to support and encourage small to medium sized businesses through their own procurement procedures: “To help small firms, we’ll increase by fivefold the value of government procurement budgets spent through the Small Business Research Initiative.”
Yesterday the Lord Chancellor announced Government policy that will put hundreds of small to medium businesses out of business by the way the Government have chosen to procure legal services. Yesterday he signed the warrant of execution for scores of businesses that provide a service to the community at the very heart of the High Street.
There will be 527 duty contracts. There are currently something in the region of 1,600 criminal legal aid providers. There are some who will survive. There are those who hope they can prosper from this scheme. And there are those who will be “consolidated” out of existence.
So why should you care?
Well that depends who you are.
Senior Solicitors: Clearly there are going to be losers in all this. People put out of work. Your colleagues and friends.
Yes some of you will survive. Yes some of you will still eek out an existence by coming up with a business model that works.
But ask yourself this – did you go to university, law school and spend hours working your way through the profession to undertake criminal law as purely a business? If you did then you must be pretty stupid. Sorry if that seems offensive but there are much better businesses for you to profit from.
You are an equity partner in your firm because you care about the delivery of justice to both the accused and the victim. Reignite that ideal now.
The cuts and consolidation impact upon the access to justice in a way unprecedented since the creation of the Legal Aid scheme.
I appreciate it is difficult in that there are your staff to consider but you are the leaders of your profession. Explain to your staff why action has to be taken. Then take it.
Junior Solicitors: This is your future. Your career. Seek out your senior partner. Tell them of your ambitions. Tell them of your ideals. Ask them to fight on.
The Criminal Bar: I really hope that it does not need explaining to barristers that a section of your supplier base ceasing to exist is bad news for you as a business. And I am afraid it is no answer to say there will still be the same number of cases.
If you are unlucky, and there will be some who are this unlucky, either the majority of your solicitors or the majority of your chambers’ solicitors will go out of business or stop/reduce their criminal work.
If they go out of business and the individuals are fortunate enough to find work elsewhere or if the firm is subsumed by some greater entity there is no guarantee that they will continue to instruct you. In fact the larger firms with greater volumes of work and greater control of blocks of cases coming up from the magistrates is the perfect scenario for the employment of in-house advocates.
Individuals and possibly whole chambers are going to struggle. So polish your CV. You may soon need to find alternative employment too.
Even if you retain a sufficient client base to carry on you need to appreciate the political reality. The solicitors are also facing the implementation of the second round of cuts. We have seen the reports that suggest minimal profit margins for firms in the new Legal Aid landscape.
So the next time a civil servant has to suggest to a minister where a few savings can be made what do you think the answer will be? Advocacy fees.
Other Barristers: The financial struggles of your colleagues leads to higher chambers’ expenses. The disappearance of some firms could impact upon your access to work.
And then there is the fact that this is plain wrong.
Campaigners for Justice: Nearly every concern that PCT brought now resurfaces. Choice is reduced in a shrinking market place. Quality is reduced as bulk work and cheap prices take the place of specialisation and excellence.
The General Public: I would like to think that the people of this nation care about the quality of justice. This is not just about guilty men complaining they do not have access to a Playstation as is their Human Right. This is about a justice system in decline, miscarriages of justice, a lowering of standards across the board. It is setting up massive costs for the future, both financial and social.
And it does have an impact upon you. The firm in the High Street? The firm that helped when your neighbour caused a nuisance? The firm that did your Grannies’ will? The firm that did your conveyancing? By this time next year they could have gone out of business. You might have another charity shop.
So what can we do? The simple answer is to fight it. The how we fight is for discussion. The two observations I will make is that it does not have to be every criminal practitioner who fights. Just a significant number. And I know it is difficult to see a rival still work whilst you take direct action. I know it is because I have witnessed it. But the alternative is worse. So unity is not the same as unanimity. Organisation and information is the key.
The other observation is that whatever has happened in the past must be consigned to the past. It matters not who let who down last time round. This is now. Action is needed. The last thing a Government seeking re-election in May needs is things going seriously wrong at the moment.
I will say that it is unrealistic to expect the Bar to take the only direct action. Solicitors will have to organise and take steps themselves. I, for one, would join with them like a shot because this is important. Really important.