The Ministry of Justice pressed ahead with its criminal legal aid reforms after seeing an ‘appetite’ from solicitors to deliver services under the new regime, justice minister Lord Faulks told the House of Lords last night.
Conservative member Lord Faulks (pictured) was responding to a motion of regret tabled by Labour peer Lord Beecham (former solicitor Jeremy Beecham) over the government’s Criminal Legal Aid (Remuneration etc) (Amendment) Regulations 2015.
The regulations introduced a second 8.75% fee cut for litigators from 1 July; new fixed fees for police station and magistrates’ work will come into effect on 11 January, when service under a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour police station cover is scheduled to begin.
Beecham said the government appeared ‘determined’ to reduce the number of law firms able to undertake legal aid work ‘heedless of the potential impact on clients and the future of the profession’.
However, Faulks said the ministry considered several factors before deciding to press ahead with its reforms, such as the findings of Sir Brian Leveson’s report on the efficiency of the criminal courts, the impact of broader criminal justice reforms and the impact of changes already introduced.
The ministry also examined changes to its forecast legal aid expenditure, changes to the existing market, provider withdrawal rates and reasons, contract extension acceptance numbers and early information from the duty provider contract tender, Faulks said.
‘All the further consideration undertaken reassured us that the legal aid reforms so far have not had any substantial negative impact on the sustainability of service,’ he added.
‘The level of interest in duty contracts, knowing the likely reduction in fees suggested there remained an appetite to undertake criminal legal aid work under the new regime’.
Faulks said he would report back to the lord chancellor some of the ‘positive suggestions’ raised by members during the hour-long debate on how to save money without cutting fees further. But the minister ruled out a suggestion by Liberal Democrat member Lord Marks to make larger companies carry compulsory insurance for directors and employees to cover the costs of fraud prosecutions.
Faulks said the government was ‘not satisfied that it is a good idea to have compulsory insurance’.
Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society, said it was ‘deeply disappointing’ to hear Lord Faulks tell the House of Lords that the legal aid system in England and Wales remained one of the most expensive in the world and the most expensive in Europe.
Miller said: ‘Taking account of the differences between our adversarial system and the continental inquisitorial system, the cost of our criminal justice system is about average for Europe, even though we prosecute significantly more people than almost every other country.’
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice told the Gazette that the changes it was making to criminal legal aid would deliver 'value for money to taxpayers' and would not affect the availability of high-quality legal advice 'to those who need it most'.
The spokesperson said: 'Although we recognise that the transition will be challenging, these changes will put the profession on a sustainable footing for the long term.
'We have already pledged that an independent review looking at the impact of the new arrangements will begin in July 2016.'