Let’s look at some realities:
1. The abandonment ( for that is what it is ) of the proposals to cut AGFS represents a significant victory. I have spent many hours lobbying ministers and MPs. My experience led me not to expect anything other than warm words followed by no action in support of the legal profession. It is united action which has brought this about.
2. What the CBA said about VHCCs was far from an endorsement. The fees are simply unsustainable. When Ian West describes the “41 courageous practitioners,” he is right. But they were also recognising economic reality. Any member of the bar who is short-sighted enough to accept work at such rates only undermines his own economic position and that of all other members of the bar. I have spent the majority of the last eight years doing VHCC cases and I have witnessed the relentless decline in their rates – rates which represented a significant reduction in fees under the EPF system. ALL WE HAVE, AS PRACTITIONERS, TO DO, IS TO REMAIN FIRM AND REFUSE, AS IS OUR RIGHT, TO ENTER INTO THESE CONTRACTS. And, I’m afraid, shame to anyone who fails to do so. My chambers, Lincoln House ( Manchester ) will not enter into any VHCC contracts at the present rates, nor will we accept any cases which have been “declassified” in order to spare the government embarrassment.
3. Support the solicitors. We will. It appears that the MoJ has already abandoned the second tranche of cuts. What is required is for solicitors to do what the bar has done: to refuse to work at the new rates and to institute the equivalent of a no returns policy themselves. Again, my chambers have made it clear that we will not accept any work which the solicitors have refused. I cannot see any other action being justified so long as a number of well known criminal solicitors will not take direct action to oppose the cuts. If they change their tack and support their colleagues, then such an action should quickly bring about results, just as ours has. But some of the calls to arms which I have seen over the past few days seem, to me, to have ignored the sad reality of the lack of unity amongst solicitors. We will join them in their battle, but they have to be ready and willing to fight. At the moment, a proportion of them is ready to fight. But it’s only a proportion.
4. The VHCC system needs reforming. But we must make it clear to the MoJ that any new system will not be accepted unless it improves fee levels.
5. We must persuade the government to examine other ways of funding legal aid ( restrained assets; D&O policies, etc ).
Alistair Webster QC