Two Tier , London and Reform

 

This piece is written specifically to address  what we believe to be  the   concerns of the  Minister of  Justice,  namely  to  go forward  with the most efficient and cost effective  criminal  justice system,  and to  maximise the scope for  “savings” whilst  continuing  to  provide  a suitable quality of  service.  

We write under severe constraint of   time and resources, and do so against a disappointing background.  There was an opportunity to   place on hold    both the 8.75%  cut and  the contracting   process known as “two-tier”.  To-date  those  opportunities have  not been  taken  but it   is our hope  that a constructive dialogue may emerge from  the  present  difficult  position, and that  opportunity seized.   

 

The Geography of London 

The first essential   point   to grasp is that London is completely different to anywhere else in England and Wales as a legal aid area.  

Greater London  is   over 600 square miles.   With its hinterland, the  London Metropolitan   Region  is even  larger and   the  population is  rising rapidly projected   to rise from about   8 to 9   million people and in the wider projected area 12 to 13 million.  

 

The Criminal Justice System 

It has been unplanned.  The Minister recently announced an   intention to close ancient   prisons  and we assume this will encompass HMP   Pentonville,  Wandsworth ,  Brixton   and  Wormwood Scrubs. 

The  question we  pose is  how  is  the  administration of  criminal  justice    to  be  planned across  the   London   Metropolitan  Region?  

At  present no  Crown Court (with the  exception of  HMP   Belmarsh and  Woolwich  Crown  Court), sits  next    to any  Magistrates Court or    police  station nor they with each other. This piecemeal development makes  the  life of  lawyers trying to negotiate between office, police stations and  Courts extremely   difficult. It is an incoherent system.  

That incoherence underpins the difficulties of establishing an economy of scale. Fixed  fees  take  no account of   travel  and waiting, and   the vast  distances of   London   inevitably   impact  upon any attempt   to  engineer   a better  economy  of scale  through  “consolidation” or increases in volume. 

 There are also inevitably  limits of   what   one  person can do  in  a day  and again   geography  impacts   on  individual   productivity .  

 

 Localising the work 

It has been a consistent   complaint of    Government   that   there is  scheme  inflation  in   London.  This  means  that  there are far   too  many  solicitors  on  any  individual  areas  duty solicitor  rota.  

Scheme   inflation  was directly caused  by an  agency of   Government ,  namely   the   Legal Services  Commission  which  took every  individuals  eligibility    for schemes  and   translated  it   into  placing  them  onto  the  maximum   number of  schemes for which   they  were eligible,  ie,   the  borough  in  which  they were  located,  and all  contiguous  boroughs  which held schemes.  

There is a simple incredibly cost effective answer.  It is a policy  proposed by the LCCSA  for a  decade. It   is  to  limit  Solicitors  to  two  or  three schemes  per   person.  This would be   the  borough in  which  they were   located and  one or  two  contiguous schemes.   This would  instantly  make  all schemes  more  local.  It  would  increase  the  volume of work  in  the police stations and  Courts local to offices,  and be better for clients  who    would  find  that their  Solicitors were also located  in the same area as the   police station and Court and close to where they live.  

Above all this is  cost  effective. It  would cost nothing to  implement.  It would remove all of  the costs of  the  horrendously complex   contracting edifice  which has  been  erected around what is really a very  simple idea  to  provide duty solicitors  in    police stations. It is a  direct   alternative to two  tier,   and can be evaluated  in terms of  its   effect.  

 

 Over  Provision 

For many years  the  myth was  pedalled   that  there was over    provision   in   London,   largely based upon scheme   inflation.   The   KPMG report  confirmed  however  that  the  number of Solicitors  in  London is  proportionate to   the  work. 

 

The Market  

Paradoxically  we  have a   Conservative  Government attempting to  implement a State  driven rigid form of  contracting  to replace  what  has arisen as a result of  a  much  more natural  market  mechanism. 

There is  no  market  price because price has depended upon   administrative fees,  there has however  been a very  real  market  force namely  reputation.  Firms with good reputations attract  the clients.  

In addition, there is another  market  force  namely  entrepreneurs seeking  location. Solicitors provide their  own capital,  take  their  own  risks, and  look for  business  opportunities.  This means   across  the vast  metropolitan region Solicitors have  looked  for gaps  in   the  market  and   places  where  they can   offer services.  It  is unfortunate  that  the   complimentary legal aid model of  all services under  one  roof combining    Civil and   Crime  has  been broken by  mistaken  government  policies  of separating    Civil and  Criminal   contracting.  

However, it is still the case that criminal practitioners  have found  their   niches and  market opportunities. This has resulted  in  a highly  diverse set  of  firms  which  incidentally  also have  a very diverse  ownership and employee base.  This reflects London’s vast ethnic  diversity .  

The variety of firms also reflects the opportunities that arise from London being the centre of Government and finance, producing more varied work than elsewhere.  

It was from market forces and entrepreneurial activity that BME diversity arose.  Government plans to impose  a state driven  model   will  severely impact upon that   diversity.  

 

Statistics  

The size of  London  and its  diversity of firms is reflected in the fact  that only about 20% of   the  work  is carried out  by  the  top 20  fee earning  firms.  There  is a paucity  of London base  statistics. It is also true that  there are wide disparities of wealth   within London,  and again   the distribution of   the firms reflects  this.  In  the Times  on  the 28th   July 2015,  Ed  Conway    the Economics  Editor  of  Sky  News   wrote  that  those living  on  the outskirts of    East  London  have  lower disposable  incomes than  those  living  in  Cumbria.  

On the 29th July 2015, it is also reported in The Times that the average price of a house in London is £481,820. There is a serious long term problem of insuring that the young professionals on whom the long term health of the CJS depends can remain economically active within London in an impoverished CJS.  

 

Scope for Improvement 

As above, we advance a  long  term   planning    proposition  that criminal justice  in  the metropolitan region  needs  to be planned and  the impacts of closing  prisons  and  building new  ones considered; such major change   will have a  substantial impact on   Solicitors  and  Counsel   practising  in  Criminal Law.  

There  may be greater  scope for   the closure of   Courts.   For example  in  North West   London,  there are  sister  Courts,   Hendon and   Willesden   Magistrates’   Court.  When  Hendon was being  expensively redeveloped, (without video  link!)  all the work was dealt  with in  Willesden  Magistrates’ Court. It remains a  peculiar fact  that  Hendon could  in fact   have  been  completely closed,    the valuable  site  sold  and all of  the work  dealt with in Willesden.  

Attempts  through  the   Levenson  Review  and  initiatives relating  to  summary   justice have  led to what we have long advocated ,  namely  an extended bail date after charge with  an  opportunity  to  complete  legal aid applications and receive evidence, take  instructions   and   be ready  for an  early guilty plea.  This is  still to  materialise  in  practice as a    smooth  operating  method,  and   is  highly   jeopardised   by severe   cuts  to  the   Crown  Prosecution  Service. 

The standards of advocacy could certainly   be  enhanced    and  maintained  by a  common training  programme   for all advocates.  

The  Independent Bar,  a  pool of self-employed available  experienced advocates   is  a  necessary adjunct    to  the rapid to   and fro   of  work  in the  CJS. We  commend  the  working relationships of  litigators and   trial advocates and clients. It is a  highly  effective system   which best  presents any defendants case  and  ensures the basis of equality of arms  and a fair trial.  Access to   justice depends    in our   view, on  the maintenance of   those arrangements. It is an enormous public good that all those who participate in the CJS experience it as a fair and just system that achieves its fundamental objectives, the conviction of the guilty and the acquittal of the innocent. For the system to be perceived as failing has extremely serious consequences for our collective adherence to common values. Cuts that go too far inevitably do undermine the CJS.  

 

Summary 

In  London  there is   an extremely  cheap mechanism to achieve  localisation  for  work ,  better economy of scale  and  to  maintain diversity of  practice  and  ethnic  diversity  within  the solicitors  profession. The diversity of firms underpins   the Independent Bar and is essential for access to justice. There are opportunities for “savings” and efficiency but achievement will depend on joined up thinking, collective action and careful planning. 

 

Greg Powell

29 July 2015

0

About PSP Law

    You May Also Like