The only speaker to address the question head on was Desmond Browne QC, Chairman of the Bar, who reported that that part of the Bar was “totally demoralised”; bright and diverse BVC students are being advised not to aim for publicly funded work (with downstream consequences for the future judiciary); and the legal market overall was being distorted by the use of in-house advocates on spurious grounds of money-saving, by the use of referral fees between solicitors, and by the Legal Services Commission (“LSC”) breaching their duty to promote equality and conducting “Dutch auction” negotiations with solicitors alone.
The legal aid minister, Lord Bach, praised the successes of the scheme (which no one disputed) but repeated the need for change. There will always be a cap on the budget and “all change is difficult” but he asserted his pride in introducing “a market based approach” for police station and magistrates’ court work and also means testing in the Crown Court (letting the convicted contribute towards their defence but not reimbursing at higher than legal aid rates those who are acquitted but who paid their lawyers privately). “Embracing change and making some pretty hard choices” he summed up. He praised the commitment of publicly funded practitioners but did not prognosticate on their future.