Chairman's Blog November 2015

Last Saturday Bill Waddington and Robin Murray completed their three year tenure as Chair and Vice Chair of the CLSA. They have led the profession through arguably the most stressful and uncertain time that criminal legal aid lawyers have endured. They have done so with determination and strength of character.  They have put aside any personal interest and invested more time and effort than could ever be expected from people appointed to a voluntary role. Many in the profession owe them a debt of gratitude. Some may not believe that much has been achieved given the announcement of the contract awards however under their leadership the CLSA were given a seat at the table.  They led us through two judicial reviews and fought against two tier every step of the way.  They have never let anyone down and I personally am proud to call both of them friends.

It is now the turn of myself and Sarah Grace to take the lead. We have received many messages of support since our appointment on Saturday, many suggesting that Sarah and I are "brave" in taking on the role of Chair and Vice Chair at a time when the profession is at its lowest ebb. It isn't a case of bravery. The CLSA are now recognised as being an association prepared to lead the profession in a way that no one has done before. We have earned our seat around the table. In uncertain times, the CLSA must meet the challenge of being of constant relevance to those whom we represent and in furthering that objective, not just have a seat at the table but be first at the table.  We have recently been invited to participate on a working group looking at the re-structuring of the LGFS. These are opportunities that we can ill-afford to lose. The committee has a terrific  breadth of talent and we are excited about continuing to work together with our sister association the LCCSA.

There have been some who have questioned how the CLSA can represent a divided profession. The fact is the profession has never been truly united which is precisely why we are treated with such contempt. The CLSA stands for the Criminal Law Solicitors Association. It does not stand for the Legal Aid Criminal Law Solicitors Association nor does it stand for the Duty Solicitor Criminal Law Solicitors Association.  There are many issues that the profession should be united upon, whether they have been awarded a contract or not. At the very top of the agenda is the issue of the January cuts together with the advocacy consultation which must be responded to by the 27th November.  Failure to make ourselves heard on either of these two issues would be catastrophic. It is for precisely these reasons that it is essential that the CLSA remains well supported by the profession. I personally would like to see new members. Every solicitor practising criminal law should be a member either of the CLSA or LCCSA. For my sins I am on both Facebook and Twitter and it never ceases to amaze me how many people are prepared to do nothing but sit behind a keyboard and criticise. To those people I say this; it is absolutely no good complaining if you are not prepared to step up and do something. For this reason Sarah and I will openly invite anyone with questions, suggestions or concerns to contact us directly.

I have recently noticed some members of the Bar suggesting that solicitors are blaming them for two tier.  I would like to make it clear that there is absolutely no merit in this. There are people on both sides of the profession who have fought hard against two tier and equally there are those who have done nothing. Whatever has happened in the past is old news. We cannot afford to allow it to affect any progress that we seek to make in the future. It has been a tense time for all. It is perhaps time that we started to celebrate our differences and show some mutual respect for our respective roles within the justice system.  That is not to say that there should not be Solicitors appearing in the Crown Court or Barristers offering direct access. Alisdair McDonald QC was recently quoted as saying "Solicitors still have their uses".   A comment that caused understandable outrage however there are alternative ways of viewing what Mr McDonald was perhaps trying to say. Perhaps he was simply pointing out that although Barristers are offering direct access there are always occasions when Solicitors will be better placed to deal with cases. Many Barristers I know shudder at the thought of direct access and Barristers representing people at the police station is practically unheard of outside of London.   The comment is, in any event, of little relevance in criminal work where approximately 95% of the work is conducted by solicitors. Whatever your view, we all entered into a profession with roles for both solicitors and barristers. We should respect that and use our best endeavours to work alongside one another.

At the moment the future remains uncertain. Contracts have been announced and people are taking action. As an association we have continually made offers to work with the LAA and MOJ to find a more viable alternative.  We believe that we are best placed to do this.  For the time being this offer still stands.

As a committee we fully understand the challenges that lie ahead. Some of us have contracts, some of us don't.  We we are united by our desire to maintain access to justice, uphold a fair justice system and provide quality representation for adequate remuneration. We are no different from any other member of the profession and indeed it is precisely this that should unite us not only within the committee but the profession as a whole. 

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