Lawyers offer pay freeze to help legal aid

LAWYERS are prepared to volunteer for a pay freeze if the Government drops plans to cut the number of people eligible for legal aid next year, the Law Society will today tell the Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay of Clashfern.

Solicitors and barristers say they would forgo any increase in the rates they receive for legal aid work, ensuring big savings for the Lord Chancellor.

The Autumn Statement included measures which would deny 7 million people the right to financial help with their legal bills, and force millions more to fund a greater share of the costs of their case. Lord Mackay hopes to save pounds 43m next year as a result of the cuts.

But in a letter to Lord Mackay, Mark Sheldon, president of the Law Society, says that 'as an indication of the seriousness of our intentions' solicitors would accept a freeze if the proposals were withdrawn.

The offer to forgo a pay rise is supported by the Bar Council as well as associations representing solicitors who undertake criminal, family law and personal injury work. They say the Government's proposals are the 'worst possible way' of making savings in legal aid.

Writing to the Lord Chancellor, the chairman of the Bar Council, Lord Williams QC, says: 'We fully appreciate the need for the legal aid budget to be brought under reasonable control, but we cannot accept that a reduction in the availability of legal aid to some of the poorest and most disadvantaged members of society is a legitimate method of doing so.'

The effect of Lord Mackay's proposals would be 'crippling', according to the Law Society. For instance, a single parent with two children who was involved in a road accident and wanted to sue the other driver might at present be asked to contribute pounds 30 towards the cost of the case. Under the new system, the parent would have to pay pounds 479 for every year the case lasted - possibly three or more years - meaning a total bill in excess of pounds 1,200.

The extent of the savings made by freezing legal aid rates will depend on the increase Lord Mackay had been planning to award. If he had met the Law Society's original demand for a 7.3 per cent rise, he would save about pounds 50m. If he intended to offer 3 per cent - the rate of inflation - he would save about pounds 25m. Last year, the Government's legal aid budget rose by more than 30 per cent to just under pounds 1bn.

The Law Society is also calling for the creation of a new body representing those involved in legal aid, such as lawyers and advice agencies, to draw up priorities 'to avoid a similar crisis in the future'. It says the pay freeze would ensure immediate savings giving the authorities breathing space while a long-term strategy was developed.

Yesterday, solicitors reacted with surprise and resignation. 'I'm gobsmacked - but that better be off the record,' said one. Chris Over, a solicitor in Exeter, Devon, said: 'The view taken down here is that it is so important that legal aid should not be destroyed that if we have to take a knock we will take it.'

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