You may not have heard about the proposed legal aid changes, which will see the majority of Legal Aid practices no longer being able to offer Legal Aid services in as little as a year’s time.
While the news is sending ripples of panic and anger through the legal world, most of the public will have heard little, if anything, about the changes.
Basically, Legal Aid firms will be required to compete to secure contracts under the new regime, which will limit the number of Legal Aid firms allowed to operate in each area. Whole counties may be reduced to as few as 8 Legal Aid firms to serve them in the future, and the applicants will be judged not on the quality of the service they provide or on the expertise of their staff, but on how little they are prepared to be paid for Legal Aid work.
If you require Legal Aid, you will be assigned to a particular firm. You will not choose who represents you for what will, no doubt, be one of the most important situations you will have ever faced.
It is a race to the bottom.
Many people are imagining that private paying work such as the majority of motoring law will be unaffected by these changes. As a private paying client, you will still have access to a wide variety of firms. You will still be able to select who represents you based on any number of factors that are important to you.
It is easy to imagine that these changes will not affect you.
As with any shift, however, there will be ripple effects. There will be firms desperately reliant on Legal Aid work who will be forced to search for ways to replace the income they will lose when they are not successfully given one of the Legal Aid contracts for their area.
Some of these firms will close. This is a fact. Very established general practices with a reliance on Legal Aid will not be able to survive without Legal Aid contracts.
Some other firms will continue to exist if they have large private client or commercial departments that can remain profitable.
And some will look for new streams of income.
The number of motoring law firms will increase as a result of the changes. Solicitors who have a long-established and successful private Legal Aid practice will naturally look to private criminal and motoring law to replace some of their lost income.
This means that when you ring, intending to speak to a motoring law specialist who knows the intricacies of motoring law, you may actually speak to a department that still thinks, talks and acts like a criminal Legal Aid department.
These people may be excellent at defending you should you ever be charged with burglary, assault or criminal damage. They will be brilliant at handling prison law cases, should you ever be sentenced to a custodial sentence or commit an offence – affray, for example – whilst in prison. They will be used to sending out letters to clients at NFA (No Fixed Abode) and will be experienced at negotiating bail conditions and explaining why clients who have broken bail conditions should be given one last chance before being sent to prison.
The lawyers within these departments will be used to attending Court and juggling many clients all with cases to be heard that day – you, as a private motoring law client will expect a specialist solicitor or barrister who is focused solely on your case. These lawyers will not be surprised to deal with clients who beg for prison sentences so they at least have a roof over their head – you may be fighting to avoid a disqualification so that you can keep your job and continue to pay for the roof over your head.
The criminal Legal Aid department is a very worthwhile, hard working and valuable organisation. The changes to our Legal Aid system will be devastating for countless professionals who have devoted their careers to Legal Aid work, and the countless clients who need to be defended and have no way of funding private representation.
We are against the changes and stand in support of our colleagues who devote themselves to Legal Aid work.
But the changes are coming; they will happen; and the ripples will be far reaching.
Be prepared within the next year to see many new ‘motoring law firms’ emerge, with shiny new websites. Be prepared to ask how long they have been specialists, how many speeding cases they have won due to incorrect signage, which case law they would rely on for a drink driving spiked drinks case.
The times are changing; be prepared.Tags: motoring solicitors