Profit margins and committal fees

I'm making a new years resolution to blog more... so it's a bit late in the year for new year resolutions?  Well, sue me.  Er... hang on I know a few lawyers read this so lets not do any suing just yet.

Last year the Legal Services Commission did NOT abolish committal fees - these were paid to solicitors for work done in a magistrates court on cases that were later committed for trial to the Crown Court.  I say they didn't abolish these fees because, I did read a slightly pedantic letter from some arse at the LSC that pointed out that the fee still existed but had simply been set to £0.

It was widely predicted at the time that this would lead to hordes of unrepresented defendants at the magistrates court.  Personally, I saw this coming a long time back and took steps to ensure that my clients would always be represented through deals with Chambers etc.  I do not know personally whether the changes have led to the levels of unrepresented defendants that were predicted; but what I do know is that since this change came in every trip to court takes three times as long.  I popped to Thames Mags for a quick first appearance last week.  I told the list caller I was ready at about 9.55am only to be informed that there were 10 unrep'd defendants ahead of me in the queue!  So, maybe there is some truth in the claim that abolishing committal fees (sorry reducing the payment to £0) will cause delays.  Certainly, the Law Society things so and they have taken the LSC to court to argue it out before a judge.

This is the latest in a very long line of legal aid cuts.

I spoke to a former colleague recently who confided in me that he had always assured clients that they would receive the same high quality service whether they paid privately or took legal aid.  I'd always agreed with that point.  But, he is now at the point where he says his firm simply cannot provide the same level of service to their legally aided clients as they can to their private paying clients.  I hadn't spent a huge amount of time thinking about it, but he's right.  It is becoming increasingly difficult for firms to manage an ever decreasing income from legal aid work, which means that quality will fall.  Ultimately, this is bad for victims as much as it is for defendants.  Let me put this very simply.  If your loved one is killed do you want somebody in prison or do you want the killer in prison?  A strong defence means that you can be certain that the right person is behind bars.  A poor defence may well find you facing the prospect in 10+ years time of the person who was convicted being revealed to be innocent and you with the knowledge that the real killer will now never be found!  It's happened plenty of times before.  On a more day to day basis, if you are the victim of a robbery and have to give evidence do you really want the trial delayed time and again because the defence lack the quality staff necessary to prepare the defence case meaning that it is necessary to seek adjournments over and over again?

How close are we to complete collapse of the criminal defence service as we know it?  The link I posted earlier contains a mention of the Otterburn report that shows that on average legal aid firms across all disciplines will see a fall in profit from 7% to a loss of 26% as a result of recent legal aid cuts.  In criminal legal aid the average profit margin after the removal of committal fees will be just 5%.

I double-dare you to go on Dragon's Den and pitch a business idea where you'll only achieve a 5% profit.

Comments

  1. To make it even better, in addition to cut rates, in our particular area they're also talking about "flexible working" which seems to mean starting Court early and finishing late. I have no idea how the partners at my firm are going to work this if it comes in as I know I'm not working longer days without being paid more, but at the same time we get paid less through legal aid.

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  2. Belly, I like the idea of flexible working. I assume it means that I can show up to court as and when I like... haha well maybe.

    I can't see longer opening hours working very well since the court staff will never go for it. Sure they'll pull together for short periods in emergencies but asking a low paid list caller or gaoler to work a couple of hours longer each day (or 10 hours extra per week) and I'm pretty sure you'll see the picket lines forming before the magistrates can tuck into their tea and biscuits.

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    Replies
    1. To be frank we are now relying on the public sector unions involved to prevent it coming in without us actually having to do anything...

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