Grayling faces new year test over legal aid

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice

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  • Andrew Caplen

A challenge by practitioner groups to lord chancellor Chris Grayling's criminal legal aid reforms will be heard in the new year.

Judicial review hearings over the legal aid crime duty tender process have been set for 15 and 16 January after the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) lodged an application at the Royal Courts of Justice on Friday.

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Their request for interim relief to suspend the tender process, however, was rejected. An oral application for interim relief was made this morning. A decision is expected to be made on Tuesday morning.

LCCSA president Jonathan Black said that without interim relief, 'despite the expedited hearing, by the time judgment is handed down, if favourable, many firms will have expended considerable amount of resources, which they can ill afford, preparing bids'.

He added that 'practices have cases to manage and clients to serve which they see far more of a priority than this futile bidding process'.

Solicitors roundly condemned the government's announcement on 27 November that it would press ahead with two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid and a second fee cut of 8.75% next summer.

The government's latest consultation on the plans was started days after the High Court ruled in September that the Ministry of Justice acted unlawfully when introducing the reforms, following a challenge supported by the Law Society.

The Society, which offered financial support to the LCCSA and CLSA to support their work on potential reviews, is also pursuing its own challenge to the tender process. 

Andrew Caplen (pictured), president, said: 'In the interests of access to justice, the public and the legal profession, we have now taken steps to formally seek a judicial review of the legal aid crime duty tender process. In our opinion, the process creates a serious risk of market failure which could have major implications for society as well as the profession.  

'Our claim supports many of the arguments put forward by the CLSA and LCCSA, and we hope to combine both claims into one hearing.

'We know that our members have concerns about their livelihoods, but also more widely about the impact the outcome of the process will have on access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.'

The MoJ said it would 'robustly defend against' the challenge.

'We worked very closely with the Law Society as we drew up the tender proposal,' an MoJ spokesman said. 'They publicly acknowledged we listened closely to their views and made changes to our proposals as a result.

'Given their own council voted in favour of continued engagement with us, we are baffled as to how they are trying to challenge something they helped develop. This government has to make savings in everything it does to fill the financial hole it was left with.'

Meanwhile, the MoJ confirmed that answers to solicitors' questions on the tender process will be published today.

Solicitors were given from 27 November, when the tender opened, to 15 December to submit questions. Black said the deadline should have been extended to the new year as firms would be preparing their tender over Christmas and may have further queries.

The LCCSA and CLSA also urged practitioners to delay signing a three-month extension to their current crime contracts while the groups await 'further guidance on the consequences of not signing'.

Holders of the 2010 standard crime contract have until midday on 23 January to accept the Legal Aid Agency's offer to extend their contracts from 1 July to 30 September. The 2015 crime contracts are due to begin on 1 October.

Readers' comments (10)

  • Instead of cutting the supply of public services, why not cut the wages of those who supply them? 10% off every civil servant's salary, and yes I mean you MPs and Lords, would go a long way to solving the deficit and the debt. Everyone in the private sector has had to tighten his belt and yet MPs award themselves a 10% INCREASE. You couldn't make it up!

    Yes, I know, it will never happen but I can always dream.

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  • Public services are not supplied by civil servants but by nurses, teachers, refuse collectors and so on. Public sector functions are increasingly being outsourced to the private sector as a way of cutting costs- and this includes salaries. What tends to remain in public sector ownership are functions which are considered impractical or undesirable to outsource ( eg the police force).

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  • And services which are more cost effective in public sector hands

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  • While there is always significant focus on the reduction in fees there is little focus on the commercial burden that contract tender processes impose on practices. While I know that contract bids are nothing new, the increasing uncertainty of obtaining a contract and there reduced level of fees is likely, whether currently or in the future, to deter new entrants to the market, both at a firm level and as individuals. This is only likely to lead to a reduction in qualified and regulated lawyers (the increase in police station accreditted reps reflecting that process) and ultimately a significant reduction in choice for clients, something that is deemed to be counter productive in most markets.

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  • Speaking as a civil servant, Mr Crawford, I've had a wage freeze for the last four years, missed out on two years worth of a previous rise while I was 'on loan' to a different department, and expect to see no wage rise for the foreseeable future - quite possibly until I retire. Which won't be until I'm 68, 70 if I can make it, as I can't afford to. And I'm one of the better off grades. Factor in the effect of inflation and I think you can take it that civil servants on the whole have had a wage cut in real terms that is getting on for the 10% you suggest.

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  • Mr Hathaway, you did not mention any pension benefits which your employer might perhaps be providing to you. Are there any, please?

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  • Yes, Simon Baggott, of course Civil Servants receive a pension provision (to which they contribute between 5% - 15% depending on their income) Was there anything else you wanted to know?

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  • Let's not be beastly to civil servants- they too have their place. How do you think government business gets done?

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  • I think we all recognise that there is a very valuable role for civil servants - but as a former civil servant , and legal aid practitioner, I think we all have to recognise there is no comparison between wages being frozen ( which legal aid rates had been in most areas between 2000 and 2012 in any event ) and the cuts that then ensued which will easily reach 30% when fully imposed, and that's if you are lucky enough to have a viable contract after October 2015, which over 1000 practitioners won't ......when I was a lad we used to dream of pay freezes.........

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  • I entirely agree with Mr Binks. I am not complaining about how hard done by I am, I recognise I am better off than 90% of the population. Every day I am thankful that I have an intellectually interesting job which pays me enough to have been able to support my children through university and training which, when I was a high street legal aid solicitor, I had no idea how I was going to be able to manage. And yes, part of the deal is a pension that is based on the average of my final five years' earnings (though the revised terms for newer entrants is averaged over a career's earnings) times a percentage of the number of years of service - hence the reason I can't afford to retire for the foreseeable, I'm hoping to last long enough to retire on a quarter of what I currently earn. I was merely responding to one of Mr Crawford's saloon bar rants on behalf of civil servants generally who on the whole are not a well paid lot and will not be retiring on lavish pensions .

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