Gary Bell QC, chair of the lord chancellor’s new advisory council of solicitors and barristers, wants to hear from professionals involved in the criminal justice system about how to eliminate waste and abuses.
On 28 January the lord chancellor abandoned plans to impose dual or two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid. In a written statement he stated that ‘his department is committed to upholding the rule of law, by defending the independence of the judiciary, guaranteeing access to justice and supporting the highest quality advocacy in our courts’.
He further stated that ‘steps have been taken to ensure our judiciary remain the best in the world, to provide a fair system of publicly funded legal support and to explore how we can strengthen the quality of advocacy in all our courts, but most particularly in criminal proceedings’.
Michael Gove echoed the words of Sir Bill Jeffrey, who described the independent criminal bar as a ‘substantial national asset’. He added that he recognised that criminal legal aid solicitors perform a vital role in our justice system.
He announced that he had ’an ambitious programme of reform to our courts planned for the rest of this parliament. It is designed to make justice swifter and more certain. The reforms to our legal system, including taking more work out of courts, moving from a paper-based system to a digital platform, tackle unnecessary costs and reduce harmful delay, and these reforms will need the support of all in the legal profession.’
As one of the mechanisms to assist him in understanding how these reforms could be effected he said: ‘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.’
The lord chancellor has now asked me to chair that council, which is being set up at the moment and I invite anybody involved in the criminal justice system, throughout England and Wales, to contact me if they have matters they wish to raise.
The council will include a mix of barristers and solicitors as well as representatives from the Legal Aid Agency and the judiciary. Because it is very important that your views are reflected in as efficient and timely a way as possible it is essential that the membership of the panel reflects this need in its composition and location so as to be as efficient and focused as possible, but it is the views of individual professionals involved in the criminal justice system throughout the length and breadth of the jurisdiction that the panel would like to see.
It is not a substitute for the Bar Council and the representative bodies who engage with the lord chancellor on a regular basis but an additional and important source of assistance.
There is a general feeling that this lord chancellor has engaged constructively with all of our professional bodies in an attempt to find the best way forward for the criminal justice system and has been prepared to listen and to reconsider former policies. This council is our opportunity to inform the lord chancellor of what we, those who work at the coalface of criminal justice, see as weaknesses that need to be addressed. The parameters of the council are not fixed and we will consider all areas of concern raised by the legal community and channel these into our report to Gove.
The council will not consist of members of representative bodies. It will be composed of individual barristers and solicitors in private practice who can express their own views without any external pressure brought to bear upon them. In that respect the council will be unique in that any findings and recommendations it makes will be those of the combined profession rather than representing the narrow interests of one branch or the other.
It will consider all matters affecting efficiency, delay and waste within the system and make recommendations to the lord chancellor as to how best they can be eliminated. It will draw to the lord chancellor’s attention what it considers to be errors or abuses emanating from the system itself and any it encounters coming from the professions. In other words, it will be open and fair to all sides but also blunt and realistic.
It is interested in error, inefficiency, or abuse that hampers the provision of criminal justice but also in examples of best practice and excellence in every part of the criminal justice system and how the system and its operation can be reformed and improved.
If you have issues you wish to raise please contact AC@no5.com. If you wish your communication to be confidential please say so in the email and I will redact your name before raising the issue with the full council. This process is about identifying what goes wrong, how abuses can be checked, what works well and how the many good things can be improved.
The panel is not concerned with personalising criticisms, wherever they could legitimately be made in any part of the criminal justice system, but in addressing issues: using the people who really know – and that is you.
Gary Bell QC is a barrister at No5 Chambers