Andrew Langdon QC, Leader of the Western Circuit, explains his position concerning recent developments with the Ministry of Justice and Legal Aid and why he is in favour of the ‘deal’
First of all, thank you for the emails I have received from many, expressing satisfaction at what has been achieved.
Second, please can I address the notion that we have somehow done a disservice to solicitors.
As you know, the Western Circuit was at the forefront of the fight against the cuts to AGFS. Those who follow these matters will have read the Circuits Response: ‘Sounding the Alarm.’ Having researched as best we could, we advanced our concerns behalf not only of the Bar, but also of solicitors, at the Government’s proposals in their ‘Next Steps’ consultation.
Since that time we have constantly been campaigning to resist the cuts. We expressly demanded that at the very least, consideration of implementation should be postponed until after reviews by Sir Bill Jeffrey and Leveson LJ, on criminal advocacy and crown court procedures, had been reported upon. The Government steadfastly refused.
We did not, as we have done in the past, take ‘no’ for an answer. We protested – effectively. The result was that the Government climbed-down. It has acceded to our bottom line demand: the postponement of the implementation of any cuts to AGFS not only until after the reviews, but until after the next election.
Some have said that we should somehow have refused to accept this climb-down: that we should have continued to protest and hoped thereby to reverse all other objectionable cuts and changes – including those already implemented for solicitors and the VHCC cuts brought in by Parliament last November.
In fact we have given no undertaking that we will go back to work on VHCC. That is still a matter of choice, as it always has been, for individuals. If the cut rates are derisory, they will not be worked at.
So in fact this is not a ‘compromise’ or a ‘deal’. We have accepted no cuts. It is a political decision to allow the Government to back down and reconsider in the face of our effective protest. To those that say we should at this stage increase the minimum we had demanded, I do not agree.
The Bar wants to support solicitors. It is nonsense to suggest we have somehow let them down. We are not party to their negotiations, nor can we organise them. I am determined that we continue to support solicitors. No merely, as some might cynically think, because we need them to instruct us, but also because:
• the CJS depends on the level of service provide by smaller firms in local communities.
• the diversity of the profession is attacked by the changes and the cuts.
• the quality of representation at every level will suffer irreparable harm if the proposed changes are implemented without amelioration.
Preventing further cuts to the AGFS fees is something that was essential not just for the Bar but also for solicitors. Nationally 30% of all AGFS cases are conducted by HCAs. Some have said to me that the effect of what has happened is that Solicitors firms will seek to do more advocacy in- house. The corollary of that argument is that it would be better for the Bar if the AGFS cuts were so deep that it would be unprofitable for HCAs to work for them.
Can I suggest that those who doubt the wisdom of what we have achieved remember the following 3 things:
1. We have suspended our action to allow the Government to kick the cuts to AGFS (for which 89% of us work) into the long grass while they or their successors reconsider the wisdom of them. We will of course be pressing next time for a substantial rise.
2. The Government now know they must listen to us. Our action has given us strength.
3. Any suggestion that we have let solicitors down is wrong. We have taken up our fight and joined with them in theirs. We have achieved what we set out to achieve, and happily, the preservation of current AGFS rates benefits not just the Bar but also HCAs.
I particularly deprecate the criticisms now being made by some of the Chairman of the CBA, Nigel Lithman QC. I know first-hand how committed he has been, not just to the cause of the bar, but to that of protecting solicitors as much as we can, in what he has always seen as an allied fight. The idea that he has made a decision to take a step which harms the cause of solicitors is, frankly, ludicrous.
The bar leaders had to make a political judgment. We have made one. It strengthens our hand – but only of course, if we maintain the resolve to act together.
I would also like to make the suggestion that we meet with solicitors on our circuit as soon as can sensibly be arranged, so that we can continue to coordinate what we are all doing in fighting for the preservation of Legal Aid. It will be a big mistake for anyone to think that the Government’s climb-down on AGFS will divide the profession. I and the heads of chambers on my circuit, and our members who have fought very hard for what has been achieved so far, will not allow that to happen. We have a long and proud relationship with hundreds of firms that instruct us, and I want the circuit to do everything it can not only to preserve but to enhance that relationship.