Mystery surrounds the activities of an advisory council set up by Michael Gove while lord chancellor to examine abuses in the legal aid system.
While the Ministry of Justice under Liz Truss has kept up momentum on some of Gove's other projects such as prison reform, nothing has been publicly said about the council, which was tasked with exploring ways to reduce unnecessary bureaucratic costs and eliminate waste.
Following enquiries by the Gazette, the ministry has confirmed that the council is still in business. However no information has been released about its work.
The Gazette understands that the council has met at least once since its chair, Gary Bell QC, of No5 Chambers, wrote in the Gazette in May calling for submissions. It had planned to make recommendations before the end of the year.
Bell said at the time that the council would consider all matters affecting efficiency, delay and waste within the system and make recommendations to the lord chancellor as to how best they could be eliminated.
He wrote: ’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.’
However, with barristers outnumbering solicitors by nearly two to one on the panel, the body’s membership was criticised by the Law Society over concern that it was unrepresentative and failed to reflect the diversity of the legal profession.
When contacted by the Gazette in August, Bell confirmed that the council was still in business and still meeting up. He said the council’s report was taking longer than expected ‘due to the sheer scale of the task’.
In its bid to reduce bureaucratic costs, the Legal Aid Agency has been working on changes to improve its processes. These include emailing representation orders for successful criminal legal aid applications and refusal notices for failed applications, to enable staff ‘to focus more on decision-making and less on administration’.
The council was announced by Gove when he scrapped the controversial two-tier legal aid contracting regime in January and announced that a second 8.75% fee cut for litigators would be suspended for a year, from April. In a written statement to parliament, Gove said he would review progress on ’joint work with the profession to improve efficiency and quality at the beginning of 2017, before returning to any decisions on the second fee reduction and market consolidation before April 2017’.
The Gazette has asked Bell for an update on the status of the panel and its work but has received no reply.