How we support our legal aid members – a personal perspective
Matthew Thomson, solicitor and legal aid policy officer at the Law Society of Scotland outlines what the Society does to support its members who work in legal aid.
Commenting on my previous blog ‘who’d want to be a criminal legal aid lawyer anyway?’, @thecalmmediator tweeted “so what’s the plan to change all that?”
Similarly, a highly active (and always engaging) Twitter-user, @ThePrisonLawyer, responded coolly: “Your article says it all.” He then asked “What strategies do @Lawscot have to make the public perception better?”
I could sense a theme in the comments! I finished my coffee and reflected on the tweets. It’s certainly true that life is tough for legal aid solicitors. But I also believe that life would be even tougher without the support of the Law Society. I decided to write about our work.
I should start off by saying that I cannot pretend to offer anything like a complete picture. There is a huge amount of day-to-day activity and many related projects and I would encourage members to look at our annual plan for details of our broader programme of work.
But, for what it’s worth, this is my “whistle-stop tour” of some of the work we do to support members working in legal aid.
Our work is led by the legal aid committee, which is made up of highly experienced court practitioners. The committee is split into two teams: the criminal legal aid negotiating team (commonly referred to as “the LANT”) and the civil legal aid team. As part of the Society’s executive staff, I am secretary to the criminal team. My colleague, Marina Sinclair-Chin is secretary to the civil team.
Responding to proposals
One of the main functions of the committee is to respond to the Scottish Government, Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) and other stakeholders on proposed reforms to the legal aid system (or reforms that might impact on the legal aid system).
The committee considers and analyses proposals, consulting with members as soon as they are able to do so. Timing is often a factor. Even where proposals are of value, they will often have implications which require to be considered carefully before implementation.
The aim is to influence policy in order to benefit solicitors and their clients and to enhance access to justice. Statistics, research and number-crunching are all useful but, in my opinion, the difference is often made by practical insight. Representations from experienced practitioners who work at the coal face are highly persuasive.
For example, and to boast of a relatively recent success, last year the Government proposed to reduce rates for fees paid to solicitors sitting behind counsel in the lower courts. The measures were part of the Government’s wider programme of savings measures.
We responded to the proposals and the Government dropped the plans. In my view, the deciding factor was not the statistics. It was the measured comments from the committee about what the work involves. These representations revealed how the changes would make the work difficult on a practical level.
Sometimes it is easy to focus on the times when we don’t get what we want. It’s not in our gift to force a change of direction. We can only seek to influence. But our voice is respected and we’ll always work hard to influence as effectively as possible for the benefit of our members and their clients.
Legal aid reform project
At times we have had feedback that we should be setting the agenda and being more pro-active. To this end, we initiated a consultation project on how the legal aid system might be improved.
Our consultation, which closed at the end of January 2015, involved discussion with a range of stakeholders involved in the justice system, including advice centres and third sector organisations. This collaborative engagement will continue and will be, in my view, particularly important in furthering the debate. A new politics is emerging in Scotland. Values of social justice and equality are increasingly regarded as objectives to be pursued for their own sake in a civilised society. Legal aid is, essentially, the fourth pillar of the welfare state. It should form an important part of the national conversation.
Our recommendations paper was recently published and shared with the Scottish Government and with MSPs. These recommendations are intended to offer a foundation to achieve broad consensus with justice system stakeholders for future reform.
On day-to-day work, we encourage members to contact us on their experiences of navigating the legal aid system. This is important for identifying areas that could be improved for the profession.
Whilst we tend not to get involved in specific cases, (so, for example, where there is a dispute with SLAB on individual accounts the formal route is for the solicitor to take the case to taxation) we will try to help and support the solicitor as much as possible, raising general or recurring issues with SLAB or the Scottish Government where appropriate.
Promoting legal aid
We are always seeking to raise awareness of issues surrounding legal aid and the importance of legal aid to the justice system and society. Through external communications, we work hard to promote publicly funded representation and legal aid solicitors.
In a recent YouGov poll on public attitudes to legal aid in the UK, 84% of those polled characterised access to justice as a fundamental right. 89% of those questioned considered it fairly or very important that legal aid is available to ensure access to justice for all income groups.
The YouGov results reflect our own polling data. In 2013 we commissioned polling which found that 81% of people agree that legal aid is a price worth paying to ensure we have a fair society, regardless of its cost.
These statistics are revealing and help to inform our strategic approach.
Communicating with members is obviously central to our work and we will always be exploring ways to improve engagement, whether through faculty visits, social media or good old-fashioned telephone calls and emails. Our desire is to maximise the chances of a speedy and accurate flow of information between the Society and legal aid professionals.
We want members to understand how policy or regulatory changes might affect them on the ground. Similarly, input from as many practitioners as possible is essential in how we frame and prioritise responses on issues.
So, I appeal to all legal aid members who may be reading this blog to get in touch with either the team here or your local Law Society Council member! We will only be able to perform at our best if we know the issues that affect you.
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