Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Criminal legal aid changes – recent decisions

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It is, to me, one of the curiosities of public life that U-turns are usually portrayed in the mass media as a sign of official/political incompetence. To me the idea that someone might change their mind because they had had second thoughts is a sign of maturity and intelligence.

Whether you regard the Secretary of State for Justice as incompetent or intelligent and mature, there is no doubt that his recent written statement to the House of Commons on the change of direction on Criminal Legal Aid reform is important.

The issues are:

1 Reductions in fees paid to legal aid applicants. They had been reduced in March 2014 by 8.5%. A similar sized reduction was planned for July 2015, but this was put on hold while the MoJ did not work to ensure that such a cut would be unlikely to reduce the quality of criminal advocacy. In his January 2016, Michael Gove has announced that there will be a further postponement of the proposed cut. “I have also decided to suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April 2016, the second fee cut which was introduced in July last year.” Whether or not that fee cut will be brought back into effect in April 2017 will depend on how the market for the provision of criminal legal aid services has developed in the meantime.

2 Consolidation of provision of criminal legal aid. There has long been a view in Government that there are too many soicitors’ firms offering criminal legal aid services. Various proposals have been made to reduce their number. The most draconian proposal was that existing criminal legal aid contract should be replaced by new contracts that would be awarded, following a tendering process, in which contracts would be awarded to those firms who submitted the lowest bids for legal aid work.

Unsurprisingly this was fiercely resisted by solicitors on the basis that, if implemented, this would be a ‘race to the bottom’ – standards would fall because services would only be offered by those charging the least.

Mr Gove’s predecessor, Chris Grayling, came up with an alternative plan, known as ‘dual contracting’. Under the dual contracting system, two types of contract were to be awarded to criminal legal aid firms.

  • An unlimited number of contracts for ‘own client’ work based on basic financial and fitness to practise checks – in others words continued payment for representing existing and known clients.
  • And a total of 527 ‘duty’ contracts awarded by competition, giving firms the right to be on the duty legal aid rota in 85 geographical procurement areas around the country, with between 4 and 17 contracts awarded in each. In other words, these contracts would allow a limited number of firms the chance to represent new entrants to the criminal justice system.

The dual contracting model was  designed to meet concerns expressed by the legal profession about price competition.

A tender process under this proposed scheme did go ahead, but ended very badly with a lot of adverse publicity about both process and outcome.

The primary arguments against these alternative proposals were

  • Many solicitors firms feared that the award of a limited number of “dual” contracts – with a restriction therefore on who could participate in the duty legal aid rota would lead to a less diverse and competitive market.
  • Many barristers feared that the commercial model being designed by some solicitors’ firms would lead to a diminution in choice and potentially quality.
  • And, possibly the most compelling argument, many also pointed out that a process of natural consolidation was taking place in the criminal legal aid market, as crime reduced and natural competition took place.

In the face of considerable potential litigation (99 cases in the pipeline, plus a judicial review challenging the whole process), the Government has announced that this exercise will also be set aside. There will be a further review of the process towards consolidation early in 2017.

3 Quality of criminal advocacy. In the midst of all this, the report from Sir William Jeffrey on how to enhance the quality of criminal advocay has not been forgotten. Mr Gove stated:

I will also bring forward proposals to ensure the Legal Aid Agency can better support high quality advocacy. Furthermore, I intend to appoint an advisory council of solicitors and barristers to help me explore how we can reduce unnecessary bureaucratic costs, eliminate waste and end continuing abuses within the current legal aid system. More details will follow in due course.

I don’t think that criminal legal aid practitioners are completely off the hook as regards potential changes to how they work. But for the immediate future, things are clearer.

For Mr Gove’s written statement, go to https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/changes-to-criminal-legal-aid-contracting.

For further information on the Jeffrey Review, see this blog at https://martinpartington.com/2015/11/05/enhancing-the-quality-of-criminal-advocacy/

 

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Written by lwtmp

February 10, 2016 at 6:45 pm

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