Lawyers lose out after volunteering pay freeze

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The Independent Online
LAWYERS were yesterday told that their offer to volunteer for a pay freeze had been accepted by the Government, but that they would get nothing in return.

Earlier this week, solicitors and barristers said they would forgo any increase in legal aid rates next year if the Lord Chancellor's Department dropped plans to cut the number of people eligible for financial help with court cases.

But Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, wrote back to say that he had already decided to freeze rates for civil legal aid and gave no indication that he intended to reverse the planned cuts. The legal aid budget would be about pounds 1.1bn this year, while the number of people receiving help would increase by about 20 per cent over the next three years, Lord Mackay said. 'I must say that I find it difficult to accept that these are indications of a dying scheme.'

Under the measures anounced in the Autumn Statement, millions of people will be denied the right to any help with their legal aid bills and millions more will have to fund a greater share of the costs of their cases. Lord Mackay has said he hopes the package will lead to savings of pounds 43m next year. Originally, lawyers had asked for a 7.3 per cent increase in legal aid rates, which would have cost the Government about pounds 50m.

Last night, the Law Society reacted angrily to Lord Mackay's rejection. 'This is a negative response which will disappoint the profession and the 14 million people who will be disadvantaged by the Lord Chancellor's proposals.'

However, officials said they would continue to press the Government to find other ways of saving money. Lawyers had also called for the creation of a new body to establish priorities for legal aid and create a long-term strategy. This was also rejected by Lord Mackay, who said: 'I am not persuaded that any new body is necessary to provide me with advice in this area.'