Clegg shares his concerns over legal aid plans – full transcript

I spent half an hour on a train with Nick Clegg yesterday, chatting to him about a range of subjects for an interview that will run on the site later this week. After the interview I tweeted about Clegg’s interesting answer to my question to him on legal aid, and a journalist I know from the Mail on Sunday got in touch to say the paper was running a story on the subject and would be interested in seeing his answer. Here’s the Mail’s take:

A cabinet split over plans to cut legal aid deepened last night as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg signalled his concerns for the first time.

The Liberal Democrat leader said it was ‘perverse’ to stop people choosing their own solicitor and claimed small high street law firms would suffer – rather than the ‘fat cat QCs’ targeted by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling.

Asked about the reforms by lawyer and Lib Dem activist Nick Thornsby in Manchester yesterday, Mr Clegg said: ‘You could say it’s perverse that a Government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice rather than increasing it.

‘The only straitjacket on all of this is the need to yield about £220 million of savings in legal aid in criminal cases.

‘But on the back of the consultation we should see  if there are alternative, less disruptive, less unpopular ways of delivering that.’

The comments come after the Conservative Attorney-General came out on the side of lawyers who are angry at the changes.

Dominic Grieve said he could do little about the plan – because ‘policy in this area is owned by the Lord Chancellor, and not me’.

But he promised he would ‘endeavour to ensure, as far as I can, that the decision  he reaches in due course is  a fully informed one’.

The piece captures fairly the thrust of Clegg’s response. He clearly has reservations about the proposals and is obviously open to savings being made in other ways which don’t damage access to justice.

My full interview will run later this week, but for now the full transcript of our exchange on legal aid is reproduced below:

NT: Do you agree that the backlash against Price Competitive Tendering and the further [proposed] cuts from the legal aid budget have been of a different magnitude [to the usual protestations]? It’s not just barristers [speaking out], it’s judges, it’s legal aid firms, even the Attorney General’s own panel of lawyers.

NC: I accept that on two particular areas there has been a very strong reaction from a very wide range of people and actually in many ways the thing I have been most struck by is decent, hard-working high street lawyers in my own neck of the woods in Sheffield who are not fat cat QCs — far from it: these are really decent people whose heart and soul is in the work they do — who tell me two things that they are particularly distressed by. First that the plan as it’s presently crafted would remove the choice of their clients to move from one lawyer to another.

NT: It seems perverse at a time when we’re giving people more choice in their public services [that we would reduce it in another area].

NC: Well you could say it is perverse that a government with Conservatives in it is reducing public choice rather than increasing it. That’s the first point they [high street firms] make. The second point is [about] replacing what is a highly fragmented market of providers with one which is basically organised around fixed contracts administered by bureaucracy in London. Obviously they have a self-interest in saying they think might lose out in that but more generally they imply that would damage quality.

So I think on choice and quality I’ve listened very carefully to what’s been said. Chris Grayling and Tom McNally to be fair to them have been very open about the fact that they have to make the savings – around £220 million – [but] they’re not dogmatic about how that saving can be made, if the industry can show them how the saving can be made in ways which are considered to be less offensive or disruptive.

The consultation as you know has just closed. I will shortly be asking Chris Grayling and Tom McNally for an update on what the response to the consultation has been, which I suspect will reflect the a lot of the criticisms I’ve just talked to and then we’ll look at it.

The only straitjacket on all of this unfortunately is the need to yield about £220 million or thereabouts worth of savings in legal aid in criminal cases, but I can’t stress enough if on the back of the consultation we can see that there are alternative ways, less disruptive ways, less unpopular ways if you like of delivering that, there’s no ideological attachment in the coalition government per se to those particular measures.

There is unfortunately a financial attachment, if I can put it that way, to delivering savings.

So, you know, I have engaged with this a lot as a constituency MP and I have been struck with the strength of feeling.

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

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13 Comments

  • David Pollard 23rd Jun '13 - 12:51pm

    Surely you know the motto of the Mail – Anything you say will be distorted and used in evidence against you!

  • Melanie Harvey 23rd Jun '13 - 2:11pm

    How about we raise tax on the rich especially the bankers for their contribution to unemployment contributing to rises in crime, add fat cat QCs and Im sure that can go towards the 220 million shortfall or at the very least reduce it, Alternatively make sure the police actually do what they are paid to do in the first place along with the CPS.. Our justice and law enforcement system is actually a joke… Look after the victims and the rest may just take care of itself ????

  • Melanie

    Don’t mention the tax word – have you never heard of the Laffer Curve – according to our Chancellor the tipping point sits between 45and 50%. Of course there is no evidence for that though!

    The only number about tax that can be concrete is that the taxpayers who paid at 50% but now pay at 45% will get a measurable tax cut. Any potential benefits from the tax cut are just speculation

    It will also take until past 2015 to see the effect due to the people being targeted ie the rich being more able to manipulate the year in which they pay tax.

  • I am an owner of a high street law firm in Chester. I employ 3 solicitors, a para legal, a receptionist and 2 secretaries. I buy stationery, pay rent, pay for IT, pay for regular software updates and pay tax. I do not run the firm by way of a limited company and therefore pay tax as a higher rate tax payer. My wife is my bookkeeper. I know where every penny goes and I know the average cost per case. I earn less than an MP.

    I am astonished that such major reform is planned which will result in major impact to firms such as mine. If the plans come into fruition myself, and my staff will become unemployed and therefore become a burden to the state and yes will cease to pay tax. The question that continues to remain unanswered is this: From what figure is the 220million required to be saved and how has the saving required been reached? The volumes of work are already significantly reduced and this has already had an effect. The problem is the MoJ either cannot or refuse to acknowledge this.

    You see the MoJ have been vague throughout this consultation process and this leads me to believe that the process is ill conceived and capricious . I am afraid both these approaches in a Court of Law would not be acceptable. I do not understand why politicians feel this is acceptable .

  • After commenting earlier this evening I had another look at Early Day Motion 36. I am alarmed at the lack if lib dem signatures – are people really so unaware of this challenge to our democracy?

  • The thrust of this posting is reassuring, as is the posting on Lib Dem Voice of MPsconcerns about family break-up due to new immigration rules. The proof of the pudding in all these will be whether there is any action. We appear to have let the ‘spare bedroom supplement’ go through without putting it to any real scrutiny and amendment which could have straightened out a number of anomalies.

  • Melanie Harvey 24th Jun '13 - 1:00pm

    @ bcrombie, Tax cuts on the rich and a court system geared towards them… The UK of injustice is alive and kicking once more !!!

    @ Mike, Cuts to prevent the poor taking on the rich. What constitutes as evidence against the poor does not constitute as evidence against the rich and well connected ! If acting as litigant in person due to lack of funds or police /med neg involved the court automatically act on a bias against the claimant. Especially it would seem if the said claimant is taking on the powers that be and old boys network.

  • John M Collins 24th Jun '13 - 10:02pm

    I am old enough to remember the bad old days before we had a proper legal aid system. Those accused of crime who could not afford to pay for their defence either had a young and inexperienced barrister thrust on them or could apply for a “dock brief” and pick anyone of those robed in Court – an absurd state of affairs I thought we had abandoned for good. The alternative was to try to represent yourself. Every Lib Dem should be up in arms about these proposals.

  • If you are worried by the proposals about legal aid please sign the Save UK Justice e-petition and try to bring the debate out onto the floor of the House.

  • Helen Dudden 25th Jun '13 - 7:50am

    I have interests in Family Law, and I will be going to London very soon on the subject.

    Of course, there will be problems, firstly we mention the subject of the Hague Convention and how expensive that is to get Justice.

    Also, the Lib Dem MP’s have little interest in the subject of the above. It causes much pain and distress.

    Law, is the way society maintains justice within society, without justice, I feel there is not human rights.

    Not the same Lib Dem Party that I once supported, more the Conservative Party, just calling itself by a different name.

  • Jonathan Featonby 25th Jun '13 - 4:09pm

    Clare – There is a debate on the floor of the House. It’s on Thursday and is a Backbench Business Debate that was secured by Sarah Teather and David Lammy. Make sure your MP is going to attend!

    The legal aid changes affect both criminal and civil legal aid. The reforms to criminal legal aid aim to save around £220m by 2018 – savings that could be made by making banks take out insurance against fraud, thereby stopping the taxpayer funding cases when banks are victims of fraud. At the moment, banks don’t need insurance because any money they lose they just get given back.

    The civil legal aid reforms don’t save any money (in fact they’ll probably end up costing about £30m), but they limit access to justice for all sorts of people. The introduction of a residence test will stop some victims of human trafficking, domestic violence and sexual abuse from bringing civil cases. Immigration detainees will no longer be able to challenge their indefinite detention. Just as concerning, cases brought against the British State when it has acted allegedly acted illegally abroad will no longer be funded. That means the cases of Baha Musa, Binyam Mohammed, or the Afghan interpretors would not have happened had the residence test been in place.

    And this doesn’t even touch on the Judicial Review changes, which will severely limit the ability for individuals to bring JRs against public bodies in cases from housing to SEN provision to challenging library closures. Many, many Lib Dem members were rightly up in arms about secret courts. These reforms could be even more damaging to the principles on which our justice system is founded.

  • Melanie Harvey 26th Jun '13 - 4:04am

    Lets face it the reason injustices occur is due to the police, local authorities and worse still, the courts themselves by not doing their duty as paid by the tax payer. Courts/judges in particular by my experience are acting politically and are not the unbiased party they are supposed to be. This argument needs to simplified streamlined and shown for exactly what it is, i.e. people in those positions pushing the boat out to cause as much complication and bureacratic nonsense as they possibly can, all to either justify or milk earnings from tragedy by evasion of dealing with matters efficiently… One thing is for sure if legal aid goes so must time limitations… The words “what a wicked web they weave when they practice to deceive !!!” spring to mind.. The law upholders themselves are not honestly working plain and simple, other than for themselves of course.- We need to stop candy coating the approach to this.

  • Melanie Harvey 26th Jun '13 - 4:14am

    Further to the previous ,my local authority (Braintree) appears to be using the court system fraudulantly to administer their systems rather than dealing with simple matters themselves and get their admin correct in the first instance. Both Labour and conservative have held it for many years. Should anyone know of any potential candidates I can supply all the material needed to show con and lab failures in this regard..

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