Martin Partington: Spotlight on the Justice System

Keeping the English Legal System under review

Independent Review of Criminal Legal Aid – announcement

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Just before Christmas, the Government made the long awaited announcement that the independent review of Criminal Legal Aid would start work in January 2021 – with a view to reporting by the end of 2021. The Chair of the Inquiry is to be Sir Christoher Bellamy, a retired judge – formerly President of the Competititon Appeal Trbunal. He will be supported by an Expert Panel, though the composition of the Panel has not yet been announced

The announcement contains a link to the terms of reference for the inquiry which set out in rather more detail than usual the aims of the inquiry and some of the issues it is required to take into account. The document states that the Criminal Legal Aid Review ‘has two main objectives’:

  1. To reform the Criminal Legal Aid fee schemes so that they:
    • fairly reflect, and pay for, work done.
    • support the sustainability of the market, including recruitment, retention, and career progression within the professions and a diverse workforce.
    • support just, efficient, and effective case progression; limit perverse incentives, and ensure value for money for the taxpayer.
    • are consistent with and, where appropriate, enable wider reforms.
    • are simple and place proportionate administrative burdens on providers, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), and other government departments and agencies; and
    • ensure cases are dealt with by practitioners with the right skills and experience.
  2. To reform the wider Criminal Legal Aid market to ensure that the provider market:
    • responds flexibly to changes in the wider system, pursues working practices and structures that drive efficient and effective case progression, and delivers value for money for the taxpayer.
    • operates to ensure that Legal Aid services are delivered by practitioners with the right skills and experience.
    • operates to ensure the right level of Legal Aid provision and to encourage a diverse workforce.

The document also states that ‘ultimate objective of the Criminal Legal Aid System is to provide legal advice and representation to those who most need it’ and that in order to achieve this overarching objective,

“the Independent Review will seek to make recommendations that will ensure the Criminal Legal Aid System:

a. provides high quality legal advice and representation;
b. is provided through a diverse set of practitioners;
c. is appropriately funded;
d. is responsive to user needs both now and in the future;
e. contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of the Criminal Justice System;
f. is transparent;
g. is resilient; and
h. is delivered in a way that provides value for money to the taxpayer.”

Furthermore “in order to conduct this analysis, the review will consider the following themes:

  • resilience
  • transparency
  • competition,
  • efficiency; and
  • diversity.

For criminal legal aid practitioners this is a very important moment. It is clear that the current criminal legal aid is not working as it should. The question remains whether, despite the generally positive tone of the initial press release, a substantially reformed system will ultimately be implemented. This will be an important test for both Government and the legal professions. Much will depend on the political skills of the Lord Chancellor in ensuring that the resources to reform the system are available.

The announcement is at https://www.gov.uk/government/news/independent-review-into-criminal-legal-aid-to-launch-in-january. This includes the link to the terms of reference.

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