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Criminal lawyers slam Grayling in court bid to save legal aid rates

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Specialist solicitors attack Justice Secretary for bullying their own professional body over a deal they say will ruin 65-year-old system that was once the envy of civilised world

Sally Roberts court case

Junior criminal law solicitors struggling to make ends meet or students aspiring to join that field’s dwindling ranks will have a keen eye on today’s final round of a judicial review hearing at the High Court.

Proceedings at London’s Royal Courts of Justice represent perhaps the last chance to save something approaching reasonable legal aid rates for law firms as two specialist groups attack the government’s proposed dramatic cuts and other reforms.

Bringing the case before Mr Justice Burnett are the Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association.

They claim the government’s decision-making process — which resulted in cuts totalling 17.5% at least to fees and the imposition on firms of a two-tiered contracting model — “fell short of even the normal standard of procedural fairness”.

At yesterday’s opening of the hearing, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling — who retains the title Lord Chancellor — came in for direct and personal criticism. According to a report in the Law Gazette — which had a journalist at court — Grayling was lambasted for allegedly having:

“personal involvement in suppressing evidence against the cuts and creating much of the resulting ‘unfairness’ himself”.

As an illustration of how complicated some of the submissions around the cuts are, the Gazette hack tweeted this almost algebraic formula for navigating through the trial bundles (picture below).

algebra-2

In addition to proving potentially difficult for Grayling — although to be fair, the Justice Secretary has a renowned thick skin when it comes to criticisms from lawyers — the hearing has also already been somewhat embarrassing for leaders of the solicitors’ profession.

Legal Cheek understands that the applicants’ submission maintains that the Ministry of Justice “bullied tame Law Society officials” into backing a deal that was wholly detrimental to law firms specialising in criminal legal aid work.

According to the applicants’ submissions at the hearing, the MoJ was able to ride roughshod over Chancery Lane’s because its negotiators were “a small number of tame Law Society officials” that did not represent the criminal law specialist profession. The MoJ also bound those Law Society representatives to a secrecy agreement regarding the discussions.

Specific names at Chancery Lane did not form part of the court submissions. However, at the time, it was understood that leading the Law Society’s discussions with the government were its then-chief executive Des Hudson, who was for several years a financial services solicitor before leaving the practising profession to go into business management, and Patricia Greer, a layperson who was the society’s then corporate affairs chief and former policy adviser to former Prime Minister Tony Blair.

The society must feel a bit aggrieved by the tone of the evidence and allegations regarding its allegedly supine relationship with the MoJ, not least as it is understood that Chancery Lane’s ruling council has coughed up £45,000 to help finance the judicial review application.

The Law Society’s relationship with the MoJ caused a firestorm of protest among criminal law specialist solicitors. Hudson and then Chancery Lane president Nick Fluck — a high street residential conveyancing lawyer — lost a vote of no confidence (picture below) at the end of last year for their handling of the so-called negotiations.

vote

Indeed, Hudson retired on the verge of the call for another profession-wide vote of confidence, although he adamantly maintained the row over legal aid had not influenced his decision to leave Chancery Lane, which he said he had been planning for at least a year.

Whether the judicial review will stop the government’s swinging cuts and what impact the evidence will have on the new regime at the Law Society remains to be seen. Judgment will be reserved at the end of today, so criminal lawyers will have to bite their nails for some time yet.

In the meantime, round Chancery Lane-way, confusion hangs over the Law Society’s current state of leadership. Sources have suggested that Hudson has bid the organisation farewell, collecting the final instalment of his controversial £400,000-plus annual salary as he waved cheerio.

He is understood to have been replaced by an interim chief executive, Paul Coen, who has been tasked with keeping the ship afloat until the latest full-time post-holder, Catherine Dixon, the former head lawyer at the NHS Litigation Authority, can be handed the poison chalice at the beginning of next year.

Coen is the former top executive dog at the Local Government Association, the British Transport Police Authority and global banking giant Citigroup. Nonetheless, the society’s website continued to promote Hudson as the organisation’s chief executive until Legal Cheek tipped off its officials earlier today.

Chancery Lane said it would not comment on the judicial review hearing until judgment was handed down. A spokesman said details of Coen’s appointment would be made publicly shortly.

Further Reading:

10 Vine messages for Chris Grayling [Legal Cheek]

Dissenters vent fury on Twitter after barristers strike legal aid deal with government [Legal Cheek]