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Society condemns ‘plain wrong’ criticism of legal aid stance

Amid growing anger among some criminal solicitors and a call for a special general meeting of the Law Society to vote on its proposed alternatives to the government’s legal aid reforms, the Law Society today hit back against claims that it has ‘sold out’ to the Ministry of Justice. The chair of the Society’s criminal law committee, Richard Atkinson, wrote to influential criminal solicitors explaining ‘the facts’ about the Law Society’s engagement with the ministry before the government’s announcement on Monday that it would retain client choice. Atkinson said he understood some of the concerns that have been expressed, but he said much of what is being said is ‘ill-informed and plain wrong’. The Society’s suggested alternative to the government’s proposed price-competitive tendering (PCT) seeks a managed and gradual consolidation of the number of criminal law firms. It rejects any element of price competition and proposes that all firms meeting the qualifying criteria receive an indefinite rolling contract that is renewed annually, similar to the rolling GMC contracts for GPs. Under the scheme, firms will have to have a minimum of two Criminal Litigation Accreditation Scheme-accredited solicitors and duty solicitors. But Atkinson insisted: ‘The Law Society is not selling out or sacrificing sole practitioners or indeed any other of its members.’ He said the Law Society and other practitioner groups have always maintained that PCT could not work and had to be withdrawn. ‘We would not discuss savings, despite the secretary of state’s call for us to do so, until PCT was taken off the table.’ Atkinson paid tribute to the campaign led against PCT by practitioner groups, the bar and the Society. But he said that as the pressure mounted on government ‘there became a need to look at offering an alternative to the fatally flawed PCT scheme… although we could all see the disaster PCT would bring, the government refused to move without an alternative in place’. He said that alternative proposals were developed with all representative bodies, including the bar and the Criminal Bar Association, kept informed and ‘contributing’ to the final content - although he said that not all agreed with the approach. ‘Following the submission of the paper to the MoJ, the secretary of state announced the reinstatement of client choice. This was no coincidence,’ said Atkinson. Atkinson said that the Law Society’s proposals have to be judged against the government’s PCT proposals not the status quo, which has been shown to be unviable and which is not an option for the government. While the Law Society’s scheme includes market consolidation, Atkinson said it gives practitioners ‘certainty’. He said the Society is working with accountants and lawyers to develop new business models that will allow firms to consolidate ‘in such a way as to maintain their independence but still meet the contracting requirements’. On fee cuts and savings, Atkinson was clear that the Society has had ‘no discussions’ with the ministry. ‘The new proposals have nothing to do with delivering cuts or savings. They simply seek to address market sustainability,’ he said. He reiterated: ‘There has been no sell out, no betrayal, just an awful lot of hard work to get the best possible future for the profession in very difficult times.’ In a plea for the unity that has been shown by the profession thus far to continue, he said: ‘Don’t allow misinformation and wild speculation to undermine what we have achieved so far. This is a time for holding our nerve and staying united.’