The Law Society has welcomed the Legal Aid Agency's decision to extend crime contracts by 12 months in light of wider work being done to reform criminal legal aid. However, it has called on the government to reverse a 8.75% fee cut to incentivise beleagured firms to take up the extension offer.
With current 2017 standard crime contracts due to expire next March, the Legal Aid Agency said it would need to begin tendering for replacement contracts. However, the government is currently reviewing fee schemes. On Friday, the lord chancellor announced that he will fast-track measures estimated to boost criminal legal aid by up to an extra £51m a year. There will also be an independent review of the entire criminal legal aid system, which will consider working practices and market incentives.
As a result, the agency has decided to extend current crime contracts by 12 months, to March 2022, and will begin the procurement process for new contracts next year.
The agency said today: ‘We are making this announcement following the publication of the Criminal Legal Aid Review consultation response on a series of accelerated measures. That document also sets out the next steps for the wider review, including priority work focusing on a review of crime lower fee schemes, and we are therefore taking this approach to best align our contract activity with the forthcoming work of the [review].'
Chancery Lane said extending the current contracts was a ‘sensible decision’ given the ongoing review.
Simon Davis, president, said: ‘Beleaguered firms will be relieved not to have to cope with an imminent tender process on top of the great physical and financial strain they are already under, on call to police stations at all hours and with swathes of solicitors on furlough.’
However, he said fewer criminal defence lawyers are being asked to do ever more work and the sector is close to breaking point.
‘Many of them will not find working a further 12 months at 1990s rates an attractive proposition, even with the small increase heralded by last week’s announcement. We would urge the government to reverse the previous 8.75% cut as an incentive to firms to take up this extension and hold out for the outcome of [the review],’ Davis said.