In a surprise move, Chris Grayling, the justice secretary, has announced an accelerated timetable for the Ministry of Justice’s plans to introduce price-competitive tendering for criminal defence services.
Having decimated civil legal aid and savaged the practice of personal injury lawyers, the ministry has now seemingly set its sights on criminal legal aid lawyers.
In a written ministerial statement heralding deeper cuts to criminal legal aid, Grayling said there will be an eight-week consultation on the government’s plans for change, with the proposal for price-competitive tendering as the main event.
The MoJ has not said how much it hopes to save through the controversial new contracting arrangements that will see firms bid against each other for large block contracts of cases.
On such radical plans, which could have huge and potentially devastating ramifications for many criminal firms and for the criminal bar, eight weeks consultation may appear a tad on the short side.
But the tight timetable for consultation and implementation – with the tender round starting this autumn and the first contracts beginning next autumn – it seems as though Grayling has already determined the outcome, so will give little heed to consultation responses in any event.
And it could be said that he already knows the position of criminal defence lawyers who, when Labour sought to implement a similar plan in 2009, threatened not turn up to court, forcing the government to back down.
Here is an issue, on which many criminal firms and the criminal bar are in agreement, though perhaps not for exactly the same reasons.
Could this be the tipping point that could prompt solicitors and barristers to strike?
Catherine Baksi is a reporter on the Gazette
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