The Court of Appeal will try to deliver judgment on the lord chancellor’s controversial criminal legal aid reforms ‘this term’ (ending 1 April), the master of the rolls said at the end of a two-day hearing this afternoon.
An injunction to the tender process for duty contracts has been extended until judgment is given.
Lord Dyson (pictured), along with Lord Justice Elias and Lord Justice Sales, heard arguments from the Law Society and practitioner groups the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association against Chris Grayling’s decision to press ahead with two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid.
Martin Chamberlain QC, for the lord chancellor, was concerned about the potential timing of the judgment. Restarting the tendering process in election ‘purdah’ - which begins on 30 March when specific restrictions on the activity of civil servants are in place - ‘would create difficulties’, he said.
If the appeal was allowed, however, Dyson said it ‘would be a different ball game altogether’.
The master of the rolls said the judges could ‘only do what we can’, stressing that ‘we have got other business to attend to’.
He said: ‘We have pushed this case in – other cases have had to be taken out of the list to accommodate it.’
Dyson noted the Society and practitioner groups’ appeal was ‘not a straightforward case’.
’We will do our best to produce a decision as quickly as possible,’ he added.
The Legal Aid Agency said once judgment is handed down, ‘the lord chancellor will consider next steps and further information will be shared in due course’.
The Law Society this evening reiterated its fears that the government’s proposed cuts in the number of contracts for solicitor firms covering criminal legal aid is unsustainable and could leave some parts of the country without solicitors to provide essential services.
President Andrew Caplen said: ‘The court indicated that it hopes to deliver its judgment before the current legal term ends at Easter. We will be keeping our solicitor members fully informed of progress.’