Practitioner groups and the Law Society joined forces this week to urge solicitors across England and Wales to respond in detail to the government’s hurried last-ditch consultation on the impact of legal aid cuts.
The three-week consultation, Transforming Legal Aid: Crime Duty Contracts, was opened by the Ministry of Justice following a High Court ruling last month that reforms to criminal legal aid had been introduced in a way that was ‘so unfair as to result in illegality’.
The court ruled in favour of practitioners who said that the ministry had failed to reveal the findings of two studies of the cuts’ impact, by KPMG and Otterburn Legal Consulting, before making its decision.
The new consultation closes on 15 October.
In a joint call-out to practitioners, the Law Society, the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association (LCCSA) urged firms to respond in detail on how they would be affected by the proposed two-tier contract system, which involves cutting the number of legal aid firms from about 1,600 to 525.
The Law Society has published guidance to the consultation on its website, and stressed the importance of answering all six questions posed in the consultation.
Society president Andrew Caplen (pictured) said: ‘We are extremely concerned about the quality of evidence used by the ministry and also that the MoJ has not taken into account the KPMG and Otterburn reports.
‘That is why it is imperative that firms submit a response to the consultation with an evidence-based case about the realities on the ground, the impact of the cuts and the volumes of work on the viability of their firms.’
Bill Waddington, chair of the CLSA, echoed criticism of the consultation’s ‘impossible short response period’ which he said ‘tends to show a somewhat bullish and blinkered approach to the problems that quite clearly exist with the two-tier [contract] system’.
He added: ‘We are pleased to report that we have had very positive engagement with the new Law Society team headed by Andrew Caplen.
‘We hope that this can be the start of a fresh and productive working relationship after the difficulties of the recent past.’
Nicola Hill, president of the LCCSA, said: ‘Hard-pressed practitioners have had a very tight turnaround on this re-consultation. But we can’t overstate enough: it’s vital professionals who work at the coalface respond and demonstrate how these contracts would impact on the work they do.
‘We’re making every effort to persuade the MoJ to reschedule its timeline, and after a troubled recent past with the Law Society we’re encouraged by the pressure the new leadership is putting on MPs and government to secure a future for legal aid and access to justice.’