Sunday, August 31, 2008

Glasgow lawyers who fought legal aid cuts claimed millions in legal aid

Big surprise … the legal firms which make up the Glasgow Bar Association, who were recently caught paying a public relations firm to spike legal aid reform, claimed many millions of pounds from the legal aid budget themselves …

The Sunday Herald reports :

Lawyers fighting Legal Aid cuts claimed £8m

Revealed: how the legal association campaigning against changes to the justice system stood to lose from reforms

By Paul Hutcheon, Scottish Political Editor

A LEGAL body that funded a secret campaign against justice reforms that will make its members poorer is run by a group of lawyers whose firms have claimed almost £8 million in criminal defence fees.

The executive committee of the Glasgow Bar Association (GBA), which hired a PR company to attack a government policy that will cut the Legal Aid bill, is made up of 13 lawyers whose companies took in nearly £13m of public money over the same period.

One of the solicitors on the committee, Ally Thomson, said the system was forcing colleagues to work "out of their bedrooms".

The firm that employs Thomson, Carr and Co, has claimed £2,335,500 in Legal Aid since 2003.

The summary justice reforms introduced earlier this year were supposed to speed up the system by punishing low-level offenders with fines or a warning, instead of having the cases heard in court. But the system has been plagued by negative publicity after a spate of stories appeared which showed apparently serious offences being diverted from the courtroom.

However, the Sunday Herald disclosed last week that much of the coverage had been driven by a PR company, McGarvie Morrison Media (MMM), which was paid by the GBA to attack the reforms.

Law firms stand to lose chunks of their £122m Legal Aid subsidy from the new system as fewer court appearances will mean a fall in claims.

The Sunday Herald can reveal the firms which employ the 13 members of the GBA's executive committee are major beneficiaries of the Legal Aid regime, with the dozen or so firms having claimed £7,918,300 in "criminal and children's" fees since 2003, and £12,876,400 overall in legal aid during the same period.

MathesonRitchie, a firm that has GBA president Sara Matheson as a partner, claimed £418,400 in the criminal fees section and £791,600 in total during the same period.

The Lambie Law Partnership, at which GBA treasurer Phil Cohen works as a solicitor, clawed back £1,113,700 in criminal and children's fees, and £1,694,000 overall in legal aid.

GBA vice-president David O'Hagan's firm, Hughes Dowdall, also benefited from the old system, as the company claimed £511,700 in the criminal subsidies category and £997,200 from the entire system.

Fitzpatrick and Co, home to GBA executive member Gerard Considine, took in £1,107,900 in criminal and children's fees since 2003, which contributed to a total legal aid subsidy of £1,577, 600.

Dunipace Brown, of which the GBA's Colin Dunipace is listed as a partner, claimed £1,088,600 in criminal subsidies section, and £1,401,400 in Legal Aid since 2003.

Another committee member, Ally Thomson, is a vocal opponent of the new summary justice reforms, as made clear in an interview he gave to legal website CaseCheck.

Put to him that "lack of remuneration" was now a problem for lawyers, he said: "There is more legislation than ever, more preliminary points to consider, the law is getting more and more complex, and we are getting to the stage where very experienced criminal practitioners are working out of their bedrooms. Guys with 25 years of experience can't afford an office - it is ridiculous."

According to government figures, Thomson's firm, Carr and Co, has claimed £1,291,800 in criminal and children's legal aid since 2003, and £2,335,500 overall, the largest subsidy of all the 13 firms.

The president of the GBA, Sara Matheson, said: "The figures quoted are earnings and not profit, and include VAT and expenses. These law firms include some of the biggest practices in the country and employ several criminal lawyers across a number of offices."

She added: "Lawyers have a highly responsible job that involves up to seven years of training, but some criminal lawyers are now earning less per hour than unskilled workers. Some of the fees paid to solicitors have not been increased since 1992."

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