The independent review into criminal legal aid will begin next month under the chairmanship of a distinguished competition lawyer, the government announced this morning. Former judge Sir Christopher Bellamy will lead a 'whole-system review', the Ministry of Justice said.
It is two years since the review was initially announced; the first, internal, phase led to last August’s announcement that an additional £51m would go in to the system.
According to the terms of reference the second phase will cover the long-term sustainability of the market, taking a ‘whole-system’ approach. It will consider the diversity, funding and efficiency of the sector. The announcement said that the aim is to ensure that the legal aid system:
• Continues to provide high quality legal advice and representation;
• Is provided through a diverse set of practitioners;
• Is appropriately funded;
• Is responsive to defendant needs both now and in the future;
• Contributes to the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system;
• Is transparent;
• Is resilient; and
• Is delivered in a way that provides value for money to the taxpayer.
Sir Christopher Bellamy is one of the UK’s foremost experts in competition law. The former chair of Linklaters’ global competition practice and chair of the Competition Appeal Tribunal is currently an arbitrator and mediator at Monckton Chambers.
The lord chancellor, Robert Buckland QC MP, said: 'Criminal defence lawyers play a crucial role in upholding the law, representing clients and protecting their right to a fair trial. This independent review will be wide-ranging and ambitious, ensuring the criminal legal aid market remains effective and sustainable, while reflecting the diverse society it serves.'
The review will begin in January and report back later in the year.
The Law Society welcomed the announcement - but said that government support is needed now for criminal legal aid firms to survive.
'We are pleased to see that the second stage of the criminal legal aid review is underway,' said Law Society president David Greene.
'The review must focus on ensuring a criminal justice system that delivers a fair trial and justice for all, including defendants and victims. The role of defence solicitors is crucial to that. Legal aid practitioners must be paid properly, and their businesses must be economically viable, otherwise the system will collapse.'
Meanwhile 'there is still an urgent need for interim relief before the review reports in order to provide the extra money that criminal defence solicitors are so desperately in need of. The government must demonstrate that it is committed to ensuring the position does not get worse while they work out how to address the crisis.'
Bar Council chair Amanda Pinto QC described the announcement as 'alarmingly overdue'. She said: 'Criminal barristers are crucial to delivering justice, to tackling the mounting backlog of cases and to delivering the government’s ambitions for law and order. But inordinate delays in starting this review have meant that many have already been forced to leave the profession.
'This Review must report quickly because those that remain cannot last much longer. It is in the interests of witnesses and victims, as well as defendants - in other words, the wider public interest - that there is a robust, sustainable criminal justice system. This review must acknowledge that truth.'
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