From the Archives: 27th February 2006 - The Great Legal Aid Scandal

When it comes to legislating, politicians may not be the cleverest of people (witness The Family Law Act 1996, mentioned previously), but when it comes to covering their own backs, well, that's another matter.

For the last twenty years successive governments have effectively been forcing solicitors out of legal aid work, by a combination of refusing to increase pay rates and increasing the bureaucratic burden on those firms remaining in the system. As a result we have a growing number of legal aid 'deserts', where there are no firms offering a legal aid service in a particular area. Even where a legal aid firm can be found, the client often has to wait weeks to be seen.

So, who does the public blame for this state of affairs? Why those greedy fat cat lawyers, of course. They've bled the system dry with their huge bills, leaving less money to go around, so the Government has had to step in to cap pay rates and ensure the taxpayer is getting value for money. Wrong. The vast majority of legal aid lawyers barely earn enough to keep going, unless they can use their privately-paying clients to 'subsidise' the legal aid work. As for value for money, legal aid solicitors are now required to run their businesses and conduct their work in accordance with a huge and onerous list of requirements, yet most solicitors continue to do the same good job they have always done, irrespective of those requirements.

Of course, the Government could simply have solved the 'problem' by abolishing the legal aid system and replacing it with state-employed lawyers and/or the voluntary sector, but that would have risked a public backlash. Instead, they set out with the clear but never stated aim of forcing solicitors out of the system so that lawyers rather than the government could be blamed for what was left.

As a profession, we have a lot to learn about spin and PR.