Falconer refers legal aid U-turn to spending watchdog
Lord Falconer has today asked the National Audit Office to investigate how much the abortive attempt to impose criminal legal aid reforms cost the taxpayer.
Justice secretary Michael Gove last week announced that he had decided not to introduce a new dual contracting regime.
He will also suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April, a second 8.75% cut in fees introduced in July last year but shelved after protests by lawyers.
Falconer, the shadow lord chancellor, has asked the NAO to investigate the Ministry of Justice’s decision to pursue a dual contracting model and the Legal Aid Agency’s handling of the procurement process for new contracts.
His letter, to comptroller and auditor general Sir Amyas Morse, was published on legal commentator David Allen Green’s ‘Jack of Kent’ blog.
Falconer said: ‘This is a significant change in policy and one that has taken place very late in the day. Not only will many criminal law firms have already taken decisions either to expand or to cut staff based on their success in the bidding process, but much time and expenditure is likely to have already been spent by the MoJ and LAA.’
The day after Gove’s announcement, the Gazette reported that some firms had spent thousands of pounds preparing for the new contracts and were considering whether to seek compensation from the ministry.
Falconer said: ‘In addition, the government has so far ignored calls - by the Law Society and the Labour party - for an independent review of the procurement process.’
The former justice secretary said he hoped Morse agreed that the NAO ‘has an important role to play in ensuring that the interests of the taxpayers have been properly safeguarded in this case’.
He also copied the letter to Meg Hillier MP, chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said: 'As the justice secretary made clear, the decision to suspend the second fee cut was driven in part by potentially costly and time-consuming litigation, whatever the outcome.
'He did not want the department and the legal aid market to face months, if not years, of continuing uncertainty and expensive litigation while it is heard.'
On Friday the NAO published its key findings into Just Solutions International, the controversial criminal venture set up to export UK justice expertise.
The ministry announced in September that it was closing the commercial arm of the National Offender Management Service, set up in 2012.
The NAO said it received correspondence 'raising concerns around the transparency of JSI’s activities and requesting that we investigate’ following the announcement.