As the Government continually reminds us, we live in difficult economic times. There is a huge deficit and that must be reduced by drastic cuts to public spending. No one will dispute that, but are all areas of public spending being treated the same? After all, the Government also regularly reminds us that we are all in this together.
Last week Michael Gove in his first speech as Lord Chancellor suggested that “the most successful in the legal profession” provide more of their time pro bono. As many lawyers have since pointed out, no one ever suggests that other professionals such as doctors should provide their time free of charge in order to reduce public spending, so why should lawyers be expected to do this?
Two years ago great swathes of family work were removed from the scope of legal aid, leaving huge numbers of people without access to proper legal advice and representation, and substantially reducing the business of thousands of lawyers. Has such a radical cut to a public service been implemented elsewhere? I’m not sure that it has – it would be like removing whole areas of treatment from the remit of the NHS. Would the public put up with the NHS no longer treating, say, victims of road traffic accidents?
Now the issue of cuts to the income of lawyers doing criminal legal aid work is in the news, with the possibility of a lawyers’ strike becoming ever more likely. For those who have not been following the story, the threatened strike is in response to a Government cut to criminal legal aid fees for solicitors which will mean that solicitors will have sustained a 17.5 per cent rate cut over a 15-month period. Not just that, but they have not had an increase in rates for over twenty years.
Just think about that. A 17.5 per cent pay cut, after more than twenty years with no pay rises. Who else has had to put up with anything like that? Who else would put up with anything like that? The answers, I’m sure, are ‘no one’ and ‘nobody’.
So, just why are lawyers being singled out for this special treatment by the Government? I think the answer may simply be that they single lawyers out because they can get away with it, and they can get away with it because of our reputation amongst the public as ‘fat cats’. Unlike doctors and nurses, lawyers are not held in the highest esteem by the public, so hitting them harder is unlikely to be unpopular with the voters.
But are legal aid lawyers really ‘fat cats’, and is the work they do really not valued by the public? As to the first point, I’ve already stated here that the idea that there was a legal aid ‘gravy train’ is largely a myth, perpetuated by those who support the legal aid cuts. As to the second point, I’ll answer the question with a couple of further questions: If you are a father desperate to see your child, to whom you have been denied contact, is it important to you that you obtain good legal advice and representation? Or how about this one: If you have been wrongly accused of committing a serious crime, is it important to you to have a good lawyer to represent you?
I’m not a criminal legal aid lawyer and I’m not therefore in a position to go on strike, but I do think that the time may have come to make a stand for legal aid, not just for the sake of the lawyers, but more importantly for the sake of the public who need them.