The government’s delay in making good on its £15m promise if barristers ended their boycott of new legal aid work is ‘completely unacceptable’, the head of the criminal bar has said.
In his latest weekly message, Chris Henley QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said he was ‘profoundly unhappy’ that bar leaders were notified only hours before the Ministry of Justice announced it was extending its consultation on how to allocate an additional £15m into the advocates’ graduated fee scheme as well as publishing further data and analysis to inform its proposals.
Henley said his predecessor Angela Rafferty QC, and Bar Council chair Andrew Walker QC, met lord chancellor David Gauke in May, when the £15m offer was made. ‘No one in the room believed that come October the new enhanced fees would not be in place,’ he said.
Last week the Law Society said the ministry’s offer doesn’t appear to add up. The Society said the ministry's impact assessment shows the proposals amounts to £15m, including VAT, based on the 2016-17 case mix information. When applying the 2017-18 data, the proposals amount to £8.6m.
Henley said: ‘It is a serious problem that, having now released the modelling data, the fee increases being consulted upon would have only delivered an £8.6m increase to the 2017/18 budget. This is not good enough. Something significant will need to happen to make good on the promises made to us in May, which resulted in the suspension of the action.’
Following Thursday’s email to bar leaders, Henley said the ministry is now aiming to commence the revised fee scheme in December, but that the process is ‘unpredictable’.
Henley said: ‘The delays are completely unacceptable. Any remaining trust is hanging by a fraying thread. Every week that passes saves the MoJ money, and costs us. This has not escaped us, and will not have escaped them. We know of no legal reason why the new fees cannot be backdated. We are waiting to be shown any legal advice, if it exists, that would prevent this.’
The ministry had told Henley that the data that has now been published was confidential. But, the criminal bar chief points out, the ‘simple step’ of applying anonymised numbers to the fees, to replace the advocate’s unique number or name, has solved the problem.
But, he stressed, advocates must ensure the data is reliable: ‘I have asked for the anonymised number that relates to me, so that I can confirm the fee information is accurate. Others may wish to do the same.’
Henley met the government yesterday. Bar leaders will meet today.
The ministry’s consultation closes on 12 October.