The Law Society is pushing for further amendments to the government’s criminal legal aid reforms, changes which it said will achieve the required savings and help improve the long-term stability of criminal law firms.
Responding to the Ministry of Justice’s ‘Next Steps’ consultation, the Law Society stressed its continued opposition to 17% fee cuts, and its concerns over the introduction of flat fees in magistrates’ courts and the Crown court, and a single national fixed fee for police station work.
Welcoming revisions to the ministry’s original proposals, it said the proposed fee cuts remain a ‘severe challenge’ to solicitors.
It suggested that additional changes to the already modified proposals would achieve the government’s target to save £220m a year and help improve the long-term sustainability of criminal law firms.
On the proposed police station fee, the Society said single national fixed fees with no escape mechanism would result in average fee reductions of nearly 30% in London and the south-east, and more than 13% in other parts of the country.
It suggested that serious cases are so disproportionately expensive that the ‘swings and roundabouts’ principle would fail to adequately pay solicitors for their work.
It welcomed the increased number of procurement areas for police station work, but stressed the number of duty solicitor contracts should reflect the maximum possible number compatible with financial viability, following the results of the Otterburn research.
Welcoming justice secretary Chris Grayling’s remarks to the House of Commons justice committee that he envisaged consortia being allowed to bid for contracts, the Society said it is crucial that different types of business model be permitted to do so.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck said: ‘We are confident that, with some modifications, the Ministry of Justice’s proposals can ensure that anyone accused of a crime and unable to meet the costs of legal representation has access to a high-quality defence solicitor of their choosing. ’
He said the Society has campaigned throughout the consultations to maintain the largest possible number of suppliers of legal aid services, to ensure a functioning open market that drives quality and efficiency.
‘Our ongoing co-operation on the research jointly commissioned with the MoJ is central to this,’ he said.
Fluck added: ‘The Law Society has secured significant changes to the original proposals having constructively engaged with the MoJ since April.
‘Client choice has been retained, price competition has been shelved, the number of contracting areas has increased by 50%, the timetable has been extended by nine months and a commitment has been given to award the maximum possible number of duty contracts compatible with viability as assessed by independent research.’
He said: ‘We must not lose sight of this progress.’
Fluck acknowledged that the government faces financial challenges, but said that ‘minor changes’ to the revised proposals, suggested by the Law Society, could be achieved within the proposed budget and improve the long-term sustainability of criminal law firms and the future viability of the sector.