My Lords, I, too, support this Motion and agree with nearly all the remarks made by my noble friend Lady Deech. The statutory instrument is an extremely worrying document, proposing as it does to reduce by 10 per cent the remuneration payable to lawyers for legal services in cases covered by a legal aid certificate. What is the reason for this? The purported reason is set out in the Explanatory Memorandum. Paragraph 7.2 explains that,
"the Government considers that it needs to ensure that it only pays those fees that are absolutely necessary to secure the level of services that are required".
That is an entirely acceptable proposition but I suggest that it is weasel words.
The reason is not that legal aid should not have been granted in a number of cases or that the remuneration assessed under the present regulations exceeds a reasonable charge for the work done or that the work done was unnecessary. The reason is that assistance is needed from the Ministry of Justice to help reduce the budget deficit. Why that could not have been explained as the reason in the Explanatory Memorandum, I know not. But the reason plainly is simply to assist in reducing the budget deficit.
Are others who do work for the Government as independent contractors, such as barristers or solicitors, to have their remuneration reduced to assist in reducing the budget deficit? I have not heard of such a suggestion. Why are legal aid lawyers being singled out for this attention? The effect of the 10 per cent reduction needs to be thought about. A number of lawyers may decline to accept legally aided work, bearing in mind that they will receive 10 per cent less than the sum which would have been reasonable remuneration under present standards. Why reduce what has been assessed as reasonable remuneration?
A second possible result has already been referred to by my noble friend Lady Deech. The number of litigants in person may increase and their presence in court almost invariably means that the case takes much longer. It often means that there will have to be adjournments. The judge with litigants in person before him, particularly if there is one litigant in person on one side and counsel for a paying party on the other side, is placed in the position of having to appear sometimes like counsel for the litigant in person. The judge thinks of points that the litigant in person has not thought of that might assist their case. The judge puts those points forward and then it appears that he is taking the side of the litigant in person. It is an unedifying spectacle but all judges will have experienced it. I have myself. Those are the possible adverse consequences.
What are the beneficial consequences? There would be a reduction in the legal aid bill, but that would depend on the additional costs occasioned by the number of adjournments that litigants in persons may bring about. The Law Society has circulated some documents suggesting that the notion that costs will be saved by these so-called reformed are misconceived. It may be only pie in the sky but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating and the disadvantages, I suggest, are apparent.
More important than the disadvantages to which I have referred is the effect on the civil justice system, for which I have a great affection. I have worked in it all my working life. It is not an optional extra but a system that behoves every government to supply for the benefit of all its citizens. Without a civil justice system self-help would become the order of the day in the settlement of issues between citizens. The civil justice system is there to settle issues between citizens and the Government. A feature of an acceptable civil justice system is that it must be accessible to all who need to use it. The legal aid scheme enables that to be achieved. Some types of litigation are removed from the benefit of the ability of litigants to conduct their cases under legal aid, but, broadly speaking, the legal aid scheme seeks to ensure that access to the civil justice system is available to all, which is right and proper. As I have said before, it is not an optional extra to be paid for only by those who can afford it.
The need for lawyers in that system is apparent also and those lawyers need to be paid for. The notion that that can be avoided by Government is no more realistic than saying that any other necessary service which it behoves Government to provide should be paid for by those who work in it. Are doctors and nurses supposed to contribute to the cost of the National Health Service? Certainly not. How is it different where legal aid lawyers work in cases where legal aid has been granted? A functioning and healthy civil legal aid system is essential. The implications of this statutory instrument are that the Government do not regard it in quite that light but think that these impositions can be made on the lawyers who work in that system in order to reduce the cost that would otherwise fall on government.
The 10 per cent reduction does not perhaps matter very much for senior barristers who have established a practice. They will have some privately funded work. They will have established good will among solicitors and clients that they can rely on in legally aided work as well. They will survive the 10 per cent reduction. The ones who will be struck by it and who may not survive it are the new entrants to the profession. Those men and women enter the profession with trepidation. It is a profession which provides no security. There is no firm that will pay you a salary that you can fall back on. You stand or fall on your own efforts and rely on the fees that you earn. Almost every entrant to the profession will wonder how long he or she can manage to continue before the financial difficulties become too great. The statutory instrument separates counsel providing advocacy services under the legal aid scheme into senior barristers who have been in practice 10 years or more and juniors who have been in practice less than 10 years. Those who have been in practice for 10 years or more can be expected to have built up some degree of practice and good will. They probably have some privately funded clients. They probably have some good will with solicitors who do legal aid work. They can probably avoid suffering too much from this 10 per cent reduction in their legal aid income. But what about those new entrants with five years' call or less? They have no security at all. They will have a meagre income. They will be hoping that it builds to something respectable. For many of them it does but for some of them it does not. Practically every barrister who enters the profession does so in the knowledge that he or she may be unable to afford to continue for long enough to establish a practice on which they can reasonably live. They may have to take a bolthole, so to speak, into employment in a solicitors' firm or in the legal department in some commercial company. The ones who have to take that course, who cannot wait the length of time necessary to build up a practice they can survive on, will be those who have no advantages of family support to help them in their difficult years. This statutory instrument is going to make those first five years much more difficult. Let us imagine somebody on an employment salary, not a very large one, being told that he or she must suffer a 10 per cent reduction for the future. There will be a drift away from the barrister's profession and into firms and commercial companies, to which I have already referred. It will do a disservice to the civil justice system, which depends on a stream of lawyers coming up through the system and becoming available eventually as potential judges.
I respectfully suggest that this is a bad statutory instrument. If my noble friend Lord Bach puts his Motion to a vote, I shall vote for it.