Solicitors who bid for the proposed new criminal legal aid contracts risk breaching the Code of Conduct, the Law Society’s head of legal aid policy has warned.
Richard Miller told a conference last week that adhering to the model devised by the Ministry of Justice could ‘destabilise’ an entire firm.
Managers of any bidding firm would have to satisfy themselves that they could submit a bid without breaching regulatory principle 8 on sound financial and risk management, he said.
Compliance officers obliged to report if a firm is in serious financial difficulty ‘may well want to look closely at the likely financial impact on the firm to see if any such reporting requirements might be triggered,’ Miller told the Westminster Legal Policy Forum.
Miller was speaking amid mounting outrage over the new contracts, which include price-competitive tendering (PCT) and removing clients’ freedom to choose their defence lawyer.
Speaking at the same event, justice minister Lord McNally warned that while the MoJ would listen to feedback from the consultation, it wants to ‘maintain the momentum for the reforms’ and will not turn back. ‘The profession will undergo a restructuring – it will be painful and there will be resistance, but it is inevitable,’ he said.
One focus of anger is the acceptance, in the MoJ’s own impact assessment, that removing the choice of defence lawyer risks reducing the quality of service. Under ‘risks and uncertainties’, it says: ‘The removal of choice may reduce the extent to which firms offer services above acceptable levels.’
Matthew Claughton, managing partner at Manchester firm Olliers, said the reference to a ‘merely acceptable level’ shows a ‘callous disregard for the rights of citizens sacrificing quality on the altar of price competition.’
Meanwhile, it emerged that justice secretary Chris Grayling has sought to drive a wedge between solicitors and barristers over the plans.
At a meeting attended by circuit leaders and civil servants last week, Grayling is understood to have said he had tried to protect barristers in his plans for legal aid reform, but threatened that if the bar did not co-operate, he would introduce PCT for Crown court work.
A note circulated by the south-eastern circuit following the meeting says that Grayling told attendees that he wants to maintain the independent bar and therefore did not include Crown court work in his plans to introduce PCT, or propose the introduction of one case one fee.
The note reports that he said: ‘I have tried to protect the bar. I hope that the bar will not bite my hand off. I do not believe that these proposals will lead to the end of the independent bar. It is very important to maintain an independent bar. I will continue to give that message out.’
Grayling told the meeting that abandoning client choice was designed to help new entities, such as the bar, enter the market.
He said he is keen to see chambers bid for contracts, and pledged to ensure that solicitors who owe ‘a lot of money’ to barristers or who act in an ‘anti-competitive manner’ would be ineligible to bid.
An MoJ spokeswoman said it is ‘nonsense’ to suggest that ministers are seeking to drive a wedge between different sections of the legal profession.
She said the government is committed to protecting access to justice while reducing the cost of legal aid to the taxpayer. ‘We are engaging with all parts of the legal sector as we deliver necessary changes to the current system. We welcome free and frank discussions while our consultation is under way,’ she said.