If you think things have been a bit quiet lately, just try raising the subject of legal aid. However well intentioned the Society's discussion paper on the future of legal aid – which seeks to maximise returns to solicitors, and minimise administrative costs, within the existing budget – it quickly provoked loud protests.
Undoubtedly it has ventured onto dangerous ground, in suggesting that legal aid might be withdrawn from selected areas of civil work, even if subject to important provisos about a properly funded network of other advice services, and provision for exceptional cases. Neither the declared lack of unanimity among the authoring civil legal aid team, nor the emphasis that these are only ideas for discussion, have saved the paper from condemnation particularly by the law centres, who on the face of it would be the most affected by such a change.
It might have helped if the paper had been more specific about alternative methods of funding, and been able to offer even tentative figures about how the civil budget would actually be reallocated. One can appreciate the difficulty in obtaining the information necessary to support such an exercise; but that does make it all the bolder to publish radical proposals without being able to indicate their financial impact.
Indeed the paper as presented has had the unintended consequence of being read by some people, perhaps quite a number, as proposing savings in civil legal aid in order to benefit criminal practitioners, whereas the proposals in each area were prepared separately by the two teams involved. Any suggestion of one group of practitioners being set against another needs to be firmly quashed by the authors, otherwise the invited responses may well be based on false premises.
Even the then Justice Secretary, aided and abetted by one of his backbenchers, also a lawyer, took the paper in this way, leading to his asserting the Government's commitment to preserving the general availability of legal aid against the Society's proposals – a situation of some irony. At least the commitment has been restated.
This being the season of goodwill, I wish Mr MacAskill well now that he has left office. There are many who did not mourn his departure, but even if the Society's tribute was rather gushing, some of his reforms have been welcomed. The fact that most disagreements have arisen during the period of single-party majority government says more about our political system than anything else.
And I would like to end by also wishing all readers the very best for the Christmas season.