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29/03/2007

On the brink

Tomorrow, 30 March, is the deadline for signing the Unified Contract, even though the contract itself is actually unfinished.

Yesterday, the LSC attempted to turn the screws by sending a letter (PDF) to suppliers which effectively accused the Law Society of scaremongering and claimed, astonishingly, that some contentious clauses in the new contract are the same as the old contract. The Law Society responded angrily and, judging by the emails I have seen, firms are more than a little incredulous. The Law Society Council tonight topped this off with a unanimous vote of no confidence in the LSC’s decision to implement the contract.

There have been firms and Not-for-Profits meeting with Vera Baird, letters to the DCA and LSC aplenty.

The signing situation seems to vary by area both in London and nationwide. Julian Beard of Osbornes speaks for many when he talks about waiting until the last minute and seeing what the others do. But given the crapness of the LSC’s fax machines, I’ll bet there will be some accidental non-signers…

However, the lists of non-signers are growing, and amongst them are many firms and even some not-for-profits in my geographic and legal area.

In those particular London boroughs, both right at the top of the deprivation scale, I would estimate that a minimum of 60% of legal aid housing capacity will be gone on Monday 2 April unless something happens tomorrow or Monday. That estimate is probably on the low side – I am figuring in last minute switchers and the “probably won’t” as signers.

I am less sure about family etc. in the same boroughs, but it looks like roughly the same percentage.

It is also worth noting the irony that the large firms are the nay-sayers. The LSC wanted to get rid of small firms, whether by them shutting up shop or merging. There is a strong likelihood that it will only be small firms left doing legal aid in my area.

Given that every firm in the area currently runs at full capacity and is turning away matters, that will be at least 60% of cases that won’t happen, at least in the short term. This is where it gets genuinely serious. We need to be clear that it means the collapse of civil legal aid in those boroughs. Unless people are astonishingly fortunate, they simply won’t be able to find a legal aid solicitor. The remaining firms will be swamped.

Just pause to think about what that means for the many, many people in dire need, with, for example, issues about homelessness, possession, eviction, disrepair, domestic violence, care proceedings, divorce, child care and visitation rights, etc. etc. etc..

This unprecendented protest is partly coming from firms who have been doing legal aid for decades, have been at the forefront of the law in their fields and been utterly committed to the sector.  Now, finally, will the LSC and the DCA recognise that this is a bit more than a winge from some featherbedded fat cats?

(And by Monday, I may well be working for a non-legal aid firm. This was not in the plan. As a number of nervous associates are also noting, it is also a moot point how long our jobs will continue as well.)

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

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