Catherine Dixon interview: New chief executive of Law Society says austerity is undermining access to UK judicial system

‘Our justice is the envy of the world, we cannot allow cuts to threaten the rule of law’

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How best to challenge Michael Gove, the newly arrived Justice Secretary, who is preparing to wield the axe again over Britain’s legal system?

Catherine Dixon can count the ways. The new chief executive of the Law Society has cycled Tour de France stages, run elite marathons and is a qualified cross-country ski instructor and sea kayak guide. In the great outdoors, Gove wouldn’t stand a chance.

Back in her office, an understated room in the society’s splendid neo-Georgian home in the heart of London’s legal district, she hopes history will play a part in conversations to come. It is an irony not lost on Dixon that as the UK prepares to celebrate the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, more cuts loom for a judiciary that is revered the world over.

“The rule of law is probably one of our greatest exports. It is important we are not seen to undermine that,” she says. But Dixon, 49,  is also realistic.

As an unprotected government department, the Ministry of Justice will be hit hard, despite making deeper savings than health or education in the last parliament. Around £700m has been taken out of the annual legal aid budget since 2010, leaving 600,000 people no longer entitled to help. The second half of a £220m cuts package is due next month. The sector is restless: criminal barristers have voted overwhelmingly in favour of another strike. Contracts for duty solicitors who attend magistrates’ courts and police stations are being cut by two-thirds. Dixon thinks “any government would be quite challenged to make further cuts in that area”.

The MoJ appears to agree, although Gove wrote in a newspaper column in 1999 that “legal aid has allowed the Law Society’s members to wallpaper their offices with taxpayers’ money for years”.

That means the court system may face the brunt, which is why the society has just published a document outlining where it thinks efficiencies can be made, such as carrying out many administrative hearings over the phone or via email to save time.

“I think recognising what is coming, we would want a conversation about some areas they might want to look at as opposed to making further funding cuts,” says Dixon, clear and methodical. “It is seriously impacting on access to justice and we are significantly concerned about that.”

It sounds as though the cost of going to court should be re-examined. The most recent increase in court fees means it is now 40 times more expensive to issue claims here than in New York. “If you are a Russian oligarch bringing proceedings here, the court fee is not going to impact on you but if you are a small or medium-sized business trying to recover payment from a larger organisation then it is really significant.”

Not that Dixon minds oligarchs, saying that foreign billionaires choosing to duke it out in London courtrooms is “a good thing for this country” because they “will come and invest money in the services we provide and we are seen as a centre of excellence”. But she also gives the example of a £200,000 personal injury claim, which used to cost £1,500 to issue proceedings and now costs £10,000.

Another problem has arisen when people who feel priced out try to represent themselves, which takes up far more court time. Might Gove spot that this is one by-product of the legal aid savings – to pile more costs on to the courts?

But not all legal changes are bad. Just before Easter, Dixon took advantage of newish legislation to marry her civil partner Sally Light, chief executive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association, home of the ice bucket challenge. “We ended up in a grotty office in Camden filling out details and then we went for a curry,” she says with a smile.

Born in Hull, her interest in the law was piqued while studying for an HND in business and finance. Within a few years of qualifying, she joined health insurer Bupa, rising quickly so that when the chance came to go abroad she grabbed it.

Dixon headed to Canada, first of all as an Outward Bound instructor – taking abuse survivors into the mountains for confidence-building exercises – and then at the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority.

On her return, she worked as general counsel at the NSPCC before leading the NHS Litigation Authority, essentially its in-house claims-handling department. The operation was not small. The NHS has a £1.2bn compensation budget and last year provisioned for £26bn of outstanding cases. While there, she ran into the ambulance chasers that give the legal profession a bad name. “We did see a small number of firms look to bring pretty inflated costs which we would rigorously challenge.” Overall, public trust in the law isn’t bad, she says.

“Just like with many professions, collectively there can be some criticism. You do get comments about fat-cat lawyers, but actually that couldn’t be further from the truth. For particular members providing criminal services or civil legal aid it is often the case that they are pretty low earners.”

It is true that the society’s 133,000-strong membership of practising solicitors stretches between polar opposites. There are City lawyers enjoying the good times rolling again, but it is a different story on the high street, where Dixon says the sector is “probably likely to see more consolidation”. In the middle, she wants to appeal more to in-house lawyers who make up 25 per cent of her members.

The 2007 Legal Services Act – known for its “Tesco law” reforms – was meant to usher in a new era of competition, but it has been a slow burn. Dixon says new arrivals including accountancy firms – but not so many supermarkets – will have “a dramatic effect” in time.

But while the sector is shaken up, the society faces its own challenges. The diplomatic Dixon is a different proposition to her brusque predecessor, Des Hudson, who lost a members’ vote of no-confidence for his handling of legal aid negotiations. For now, she is in listening mode, reviewing all aspects of the 190-year-old organisation with findings due in the autumn. Is the Law Society still relevant to solicitors? Is the training it offers good enough? At the moment, membership is an important form of accreditation, but would they all still pay to join if it became voluntary?

“When you come into an organisation that hasn’t really got that clarity of direction, it is important to take steps quickly to ensure that direction is set for the future,” Dixon says. At the same time, she is listening intently to the drumbeats of government, with the MoJ so far committing to use fewer consultants and delaying some capital projects as it belt-tightens.

“If we were a developing country, then establishing a rule of law and access to justice would be fundamental before we start thinking about health and education,” Dixon adds. “Given that, it really is critical that we don’t undermine it.”

CV: Catherine Dixon

Education

HND in business and finance, law degree at Leeds Metropolitan, graduating in 1991. Solicitors’ finals at College of Law in York, Open University MBA and qualified mediator.

Career so far

Articles with Andrew M Jackson & Co in Hull from 1992 to 1997, Eversheds until 1999, when she joined Bupa Care Services as head of legal then commercial director. Three years in Canada, including as director of the Vancouver Coastal Health Authority, returning to the UK in 2009 as general counsel at the NSPCC. Chief executive of NHS Litigation Authority from 2012, joining the Law Society as chief executive in 2015.

Personal

Married to Sally Light, chief executive of the Motor Neurone Disease Association. Lives in Highgate, north London. Relaxes by cycling.

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