The justice secretary today confirmed that he has abandoned a central plank of the Ministry of Justice’s cost-cutting criminal legal aid reforms and published revised plans for criminal legal aid contracting, following a deal agreed with the Law Society.
Law Society president Nicholas Fluck welcomed the announcement that price-competitive tendering will be scrapped as a ‘shared way forward for a more stable and sustainable criminal legal aid system’.
He said that Chris Grayling has ‘listened to the concerns of the profession’ and expressed confidence that the ‘agreed proposal’ represents the ‘best achievable outcome for our members and those who rely on legal aid.’
Grayling (pictured) announced the concession in the House of Commons this afternoon, formally responding to the government’s Transforming Legal Aid consultation, which received over 1,600 responses from lawyers’ groups, charities and judges. The move follows his July concession over the controversial plan to remove clients’ choice of solicitor.
Plans drawn up following intensive discussions with the Law Society over the summer will create two criminal contracts - one for own-client work and a second for contracts for duty solicitor slots.
A new six-week consultation, Transforming Legal Aid: next steps, proposes that all solicitors who currently provide criminal legal aid work to their own clients will continue to be able to do so, as long as they meet minimum quality requirements.
The ministry is seeking views on a second tender for a limited number of contracts for duty solicitor work. Eligibility will be based on a capability and capacity assessment, with no element of price competition.
England and Wales will be split into 62 procurement areas based on the 42 criminal justice areas with London divided into nine and special allocations for rural areas, including Wales.
An independent report commissioned by the MoJ and the Law Society will assess the number of duty contracts awarded in each geographical area. Duty slots will be apportioned in equal shares to firms, breaking the current link between the number of duty solicitors at a firm and the number of duty slots they receive.
The announcement confirmed the Gazette’s report earlier today that the 17.5% fee cuts will be introduced across the board in two stages – the first 8.75% cut in February 2014 and the second when the contracts begin in May 2015.
Barrister and solicitor advocates in the most serious criminal case – very high costs cases – will have their fees cut by 30%. To mitigate the effect of some of the cuts, the ministry will introduce interim payments during long-running cases.
Grayling confirmed that the ministry will press ahead with its proposal to remove prison law from the scope of legal aid, taking funding away from around 11,000 cases a year.
It will introduce a threshold on Crown court legal aid to stop defendants with an annual household disposable income of £37,500 and more than £3,000 left in the bank each month being automatically granted legal aid.
The ministry will consult on two options for reforming Crown court advocacy fees. One builds on the ministry’s proposals put forward in the April consultation, but sets a floor below which fees cannot go and recognises that there should be a different fee for guilty pleas and trials.
The second is based on a scheme put forward by the Bar Council, drawing on the model used by the Crown Prosecution Service.
In collaboration with the Law Society and the Bar Council, Grayling has asked a former senior civil servant Sir William Jeffrey to conduct an independent review of the future of criminal advocacy, which will report in six months time.
On the civil side, a new residency test will restrict the availability of civil legal aid to those with a strong connection to the UK.
The government will make it harder for claimants to use civil legal aid to bring ‘speculative cases’, funding only cases with at least a 50% chance of success.
Fees paid to experts in civil cases will also be cut, to reflect fees paid for similar services elsewhere.
The ministry will further consult on much-criticised plans to limit legal aid in judicial review cases, setting out its revised plans ‘soon’.
Announcing the new measures Grayling said: ‘I have listened to lawyers’ concerns and had constructive discussions with the Law Society. They acknowledge that, whilst it may be difficult, change is also inevitable. But it must be the right change that brings about the right outcomes.’
He said: ‘The proposals we have agreed make sure legally aided lawyers will always be available when needed and that people can choose the lawyer they want to help them.’
But he added: ‘Even after these reforms, we will still have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. I want to ensure the limited money we have is concentrated on those cases and people who need it most.’
He said the ‘tough’ package of change is ‘driven by harsh economic reality’ as the ministry is required to cut its budget by around a third by the end of 2016.
The consultation, published on the MoJ website, closes on 18 October.