Price-competitive tendering for criminal defence services will be introduced this autumn under accelerated plans revealed by the justice secretary this morning.
In a written ministerial statement, Chris Grayling (pictured) announced an eight-week consultation on the plans will begin in April – but said that the tender for contracts will open in the autumn.
The government expects the first contracts to go live in the autumn of 2014.
In a statement issued in December 2011, the government said it would consult on the introduction of price competition in autumn 2013. However Grayling said today: ‘Given the need to achieve savings as quickly as possible, we have decided to accelerate that timetable.’
The Labour government had sought to introduce price-competitive tendering, but abandoned its proposals after strong resistance from the profession, especially from smaller firms.
Grayling said that through the Legal Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, the government had already sought to reduce legal aid spent on civil cases, but he said that criminal defence represents by far the largest element of the remaining legal aid spend, accounting for over £1bn a year.
He said: ‘We are committed to ensuring that the criminal legal aid scheme of the future continues to protect people’s fundamental right to a defence.
‘However, against a background of continuing financial challenge, we need to ensure we target our resources.’
Grayling said that the government would also look again at ways to ensure that defendants who can afford to contribute to their legal costs do so, so that system ‘commands the confidence of the public’.
The Law Society’s head of legal aid Richard Miller said: ‘We will take some convincing that price competition is workable, given the nature of the work and the market as it currently exists. But we’re ready to work with them to make the procurement process, whatever form it might eventually take, successful, since it would be in nobody’s interest for a repeat of the problems with court translation services.
‘As to the substance of their consultation – we await with interest and will take a full part in the consultation, on behalf of our members.’
Grayling also announced that the Ministry of Justice is taking steps to strengthen the effectiveness of the Crown court means-testing scheme, with the introduction in July of the power to seize and sell a convicted defendant’s car to contribute to the cost of their defence.
The full statement can be read on the parliament website.