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Nick Clegg meets with Manchester Law Society members

Nick Clegg meets with Manchester Law Society members

Thursday 20th September 2012

Manchester Law Society recently hosted a lunch meeting with Nick Clegg at the offices of Brabners Chaffe Street for members to openly discuss with him issues affecting the legal profession.


Jeff Lewis, a Partner at Brabners Chaffe Street and President of Manchester Law Society, welcomed Nick Clegg and members to the event and said that there were a lot of issues that needed to be discussed, but obviously the state of the economy was perhaps the most pressing.


The Deputy Prime Minister said that the UK was in an unprecedented and unpredictable economic situation, which he believed, began as far back to the crash in 1986. This had created a volatile economy and led to government after government, both Labour and Conservative, relying upon taxation revenue from the South East to fund other parts of the country and public services. This over-reliance on taxation revenue, along with super high levels of personal debt led to the current recession which began in 2008. Nick Clegg said that the government was trying to repair the situation, but it was taking longer than anticipated. Running alongside the revival of the economy was the regulation of the banking system, which he said was a difficult balancing act, particularly set against the backdrop of the crisis in the Eurozone. He added "when we came into government we knew that our fiscal policy would be controversial and unpopular but I believe the basic architecture for the economy is right. We will continue to tweak the plan, but fundamentally the pillars of the structure are right and rational."


The session was then open to members to put their questions to the Deputy PM. Martin Coyne of Ralli Solicitors said that he was concerned that the banks were running the economy and he gave an example of one of the firm's clients whose funding by the bank had been withdrawn without notice. Nick Clegg agreed that this was a serious issue for businesses and the economy and the banks need to look at their structures. He said the system of high street branches was withering and it was often the case that lending was refused because "the computer says no' rather than on a case by case basis. He said that some banks were better than others, but other funding for business was becoming available though the government's "Funding for Lending" scheme.


Moving on from the economy, Felicity Fleming of Heaney Watson voiced her concerns on the withdrawal of legal aid. She said the removal of legal aid from many areas of the law would lead to many lawyers losing their jobs, and leaving many vulnerable people without legal representation and an increase in litigants in person. This was a view echoed by Ann Harrison of Stephensons who said "Access to justice is at stake here, which is a fundamental right. No one is listening to the profession."


She added that it was predicted that the number of law firms will reduce from 11,000 to 5,000 over the coming years because of the cuts to the legal aid budget and the Legal Services Act.


In response Nick Clegg said "I'm not a legal aid expert but every single observer has said for years that the legal aid budget is out of control". He added that other forms of advice were available through CABs and there was to be greater emphasis on mediation.


Stephen Benson of Cobbetts LLP asked Mr Clegg whether he thought that the South East would continue to dominate the economy, and was there something the government could do to assist regional businesses.  Nick Clegg, who represents Sheffield Hallam, said that there had long been a north/south divide, which had got worse in recent years – even in the boom period, and a key challenge for the Coalition Government was to ensure that the divide was not exacerbated during our current economic difficulties.He believed that planned investment into the provinces and improvements to the rail network would give the north greater financial clout in the future.


Mike Mackey, senior partner of Burton Copeland asked Nick Clegg about the proposals for flexible criminal court opening hours. He said that given that a number of courts had closed because of the reduction in the number of cases being listed, what was the point of this and how was it going to be funded and was this move purely political spin? The Deputy Prime Minister's response was that this idea had come from the public.


During the riots of August 2011, the courts had run on a 24 hour basis and justice had been dispensed quickly. However, Nick Clegg did say that he would raise the issue with Justice Minister, Kenneth Clarke to ensure that there was the demand for this. Nazir Afzal, the Chief Crown Prosecutor for Manchester confirmed that a Sunday court pilot scheme would be running from September to March in Manchester.


Jeff Lewis said of the event, “We were delighted to welcome Nick Clegg to meet members of the Society. After over an hour of fairly intense discussion, the overall consensus was that it had been a useful and informative meeting and that Nick Clegg had been frank in the discussions and it was hoped that he would take some of the views expressed on board.”