24/09/2007

Open letter to Jack Straw

Dear Minister for Justice,

I note that in your address to the Society of Labour Lawyers you asked for the help of the legal profession in finding out why England and Wales spend more on legal aid than ‘any other nation’.

I am somewhat surprised that you haven’t got civil servants, advisory groups, commons committees and professional bodies who can explain this to you. I thought the Committee on Constitutional Affairs and the Law Society had tried to give explanations and suggestions, amongst many others. But I am delighted that you seek our views and trust that you will consider the following.

The increase in the legal aid budget that you give is apparently not adjusted for inflation. The statistics office won’t let me go back beyond 1987, but since 1987, there was about 100% inflation to 2005, and the inflation rate was, on average, quite high between 1980 and 1987. So let us be generous and say another 40%. So the equivalent legal aid budget for 1980 would be £916 million.

But this is still a sizeable increase, of course. The LSC, the Law Society, The Committee for Constitutional Affairs and others all point out that the increase has been driven by high cost criminal cases and the family sector, although uniquely, the LSC refuse to act on this information.

Now ask yourself why this increase? Might the 40 Acts of Parliament on Criminal Justice and the thousand odd of new offences since 1997 have anything to do with it? Might the record prison population be somehow linked to it? Or perhaps the introduction of new sentence structures while failing to ensure that the necessary support services are in place? You know that tends to mean expensive appeals, particularly when the Government won’t actually let any judgment go unappealed. That’s a fair few tens (or hundreds) of millions down the drain for starters.

Or in the civil sector, might the increase in social services activity, and its underfunded support services (do you see a trend?) bring about an increase in Family cases, mostly in long drawn out child care cases?

You see, Jack, if I can call you Jack. (I feel I can, since one of your jogging bodyguards once stood on my foot as I approached Waterloo Bridge, and it is hard to be formal once you have seen someone in a sweaty vest, even if accompanied by two glowing close protection officers in shiny shorts.) It isn’t just legal aid lawyers that drive up legal aid costs. In fact, I would go so far as to say it isn’t legal aid lawyers driving up legal aid costs, full stop. As is evidenced, Jack, in the fact that you are wrong to suggest that the:

“astonishing” increase in the cost of legal aid had also spurred a rise in the numbers of lawyers and their incomes.

From 1980? Maybe in numbers – although not income – adjusted for inflation. But, I’m sure that, being Minister for Justice, you have noticed that the number of legal aid lawyers has been falling dramatically over the last few years. Oh, sorry. hadn’t anybody told you? And the reason why? Because it is very hard to make a decent living off a legal aid practice, perhaps.

And I have to say, Jack, I am sad to see you deploying the old resort of the desperate hack, the irrelevant comparison, when you said:

it could not be right that in England and Wales £34 was spent per head on legal aid, compared with £10 in New Zealand, £7 in the Irish Republic, £4 in Germany, £3 in France and £1 in Sweden.

Of the five comparators, three have completely different legal systems (and hardly any legal aid worth speaking of), two have vaguely similar systems but much smaller populations, far fewer offenders, far fewer offences per head of population, less legal redress against the state or other private bodies, and, as far as I can tell, desperate and embattled ‘public’ lawyers.

So, one reason our legal aid system costs more is that it is (still despite everything) better. For one of the pillars of the welfare state, (you remember Jack, like Education and the NHS), the aim should surely be to be quality for all.

I hope this has been of some help, Minister, because whatever ‘advice’ you are receiving appears to be, shall we say, a bit lacking in detail, honesty and that vision thing.

Oh and as someone just about to become a solicitor, I would like a legal aid sector to work in. Thank you.

Yours sincerely

Nearly Legal

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.

1 Comment

  1. Tessa Shepperson

    Of course another factor in the high expenditure might be poor administration on the part of the LSC and its predecessors. When I did legal aid work there were several occasions when I was paid more than I was entitled to, and despite informing the Legal Aid Board (as it was called at that time) about this, it took them a very long time to take it back. Virtually every legal aid practitioner I have spoken to has some tale to tell of similar incompetence. Multiplied many times, this must amount to huge sums of money. Not to mention the vast amounts of time wasted by all involved in trying to sort these problems out.

    Yet although they fail to recover money promptly when we tell them about it, the LSC have een fit (as I understand it) to make deductions for alleged overpayments from firms more than six years after the case has closed, i.e. after their files have been destroyed and they are no longer able to challenge it. It is not surprising that so many firms (mine included) have decided to pull back from Legal Aid work.

    I am amazed quite frankly that NL is considering a career in the Legal Aid sector and, Mr Straw, you should be very grateful that there are still a few committed lawyers willing to do this.

    Reply

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