Pressure on the government to amend its criminal legal aid reforms mounted last week as MPs debated the changes in parliament.
Signs of a cabinet split had already emerged after deputy prime minister Nick Clegg voiced concern about the removal of client choice and attorney general Dominic Grieve QC appeared to endorse barristers’ concerns that the changes will damage the justice system.
Last Thursday, Labour’s David Lammy and the Liberal Democrat Sarah Teather secured a Commons debate on the cuts, stressing that such far-reaching changes should not be passed by secondary legislation without a proper parliamentary debate.
MPs from both sides of the House warned that the reforms will irretrievably damage the criminal justice system and lead to miscarriages of justice.
Former Conservative leadership challenger David Davis (pictured) labelled the decision to mandate the number of providers a ‘Soviet proposal’. He questioned whether there will be sufficient quality safeguards and also warned against the moves to limit judicial review. Davis urged the government to ‘go more slowly’ and ‘come back with primary legislation’.
The plea was echoed by Steve Brine, a Conservative member of the Commons justice committee, who urged justice secretary Chris Grayling to listen to the alternative proposals submitted by the professions.
Former Conservative legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly said the changes do not go far enough.
Djanogly said the Legal Services Act has enabled a transformation in the way legal services are provided. There is ‘no reason why solicitors and barristers cannot go into partnership together’ or why the bar cannot bid for contracts and employ solicitors.
He criticised the Bar Standards Board for its tardiness in changing its regulatory practices, saying it is ‘unable to see the writing on the wall’ for its profession.
Djanogly suggested that the government reintroduce its plans to pay a single fee for cases covering both the litigation and advocacy. He said retaining a two-tier fee structure ‘sends out the wrong message’ – that either the current system can adapt, or that the proposals will be reversed and the profession allowed to return to ‘inefficient’ practices.
Grayling, who will appear before the justice committee on Wednesday, did not attend the debate. Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan indicated that Labour will seek an opposition day debate on the reforms.
In a debate on the effect of the reforms in rural Wales, Liberal Democrat Mark Williams said the ‘devastating impact on access to justice’ for his constituents had been ‘lamentably overlooked’. Williams said the proposed PCT model is ‘inappropriate’ for rural areas, where it would be ‘extremely difficult’ for defendants to see the solicitor allocated because of the distance involved.
In the Lords, Labour’s former legal aid minister Lord Bach asked justice minister Lord McNally whether client choice would be retained, or whether McNally stood by Grayling’s now notorious recent comment to the Gazette that criminal defendants are not ‘connoisseurs’ of legal services. McNally, who has described the professions’ response to the proposals as ‘hysterical’, said the government is ‘carefully considering’ the plans.