Law Society president Andrew Caplen has marked the approach of the organisation’s Access to Justice Day by voicing his concerns for criminal legal aid solicitors and the criminal justice system.
Caplen, a long-time duty provider, pointed to the uncertainty that continues to afflict the sector, six months after the Ministry of Justice published its reform blueprint.
He said: ‘The MoJ issued its final response to its Transforming Legal Aid Consultation on 27 February, along with the release of the KPMG report on the ministry’s proposed two-tier contract structure. Yet most of our concerns remain to be addressed.’
The new contracting arrangements introduced two-tier contracts: one for own-client work, available to all qualifying firms; and a second for duty contracts, available to a limited number of firms. To bid for duty contracts, firms need to have an own-client contract.
The tender process for own-client work ended in May. But in late July, under pressure from the Law Society, the MoJ announced that the start date for the tender for duty provider contracts would be deferred until October.
Yet with just a few weeks to go, the ministry has failed to provide the tender information it promised to help bidder preparations.
So short is the planned time frame, with the new contracts intended to commence on 1 July next year, Caplen believes that it may be time for the MoJ to admit that the scheme as presently conceived (with so much outstanding) is unviable.
There is also no indication when the MoJ will begin paying out an estimated £9m to fund interim Crown court payments for solicitors in long-running cases, promised in March to help with their cashflow.
This was expected to begin in mid- to late-August.
Caplen told the Gazette: ‘The KPMG report identified a need for a different response in nine rural and 21 other areas. What is proposed by the government?
‘We set out 45 pages of concerns on the draft duty contracts, with significant concerns for the process in the 32 Greater London contract areas. Again, what is proposed? That is why we urged a rescheduling with no contracts being awarded before May 2015. The plight of criminal law practitioners and the threat to the working of a criminal justice system worries me deeply. I stand ready to do whatever I can to assist in seeking urgent solutions.’
Caplen will launch the Access to Justice campaign at Chancery Lane on 8 September.