The government has announced its decision on criminal legal aid six months after the publication of its Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps consultation.
The changes will have a profound impact on our criminal legal aid members, who face uncertainty and very difficult challenges in changing their businesses to meet the government’s new requirements.
The lord chancellor made it very clear to the legal sector that he was determined to meet budgetary objectives. It is a matter of the greatest regret that no political party has committed to protect legal aid.
In these difficult circumstances, this leaves no realistic choice but to engage with the government.
We consulted with a wide range of specialist practitioner groups and sought the views of every local law society across England and Wales. The majority view has consistently been to continue to voice our opposition to the planned cuts; be clear about our reservations about the changes to the way legal aid contracts are awarded; but to robustly engage with the government on how to mitigate the impact of these changes.
We continue to believe that our original proposals would have enabled the necessary market consolidation, while better addressing the maintenance of a sustainable supplier base. However, we acknowledge that the government has listened to our detailed concerns and made some practical changes to its original proposals.
As a result of our lobbying, the government has agreed to keep the principle of client choice and abandoned price-competitive tendering. It has agreed to allow firms to submit joint bids as consortia or delivery partnerships, so substantially increasing the potential number of firms able to participate in the duty market.
We have also pressed the government to put in place measures to help criminal defence solicitors adapt to the new requirements to mitigate the risks of transition.
These measures include: a commitment to work with the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills to provide loan guarantees to legal firms which need to invest to deliver the new contracts; measures to ease cashflow in legal aid firms through interim payments for Crown court cases; providing support through business partnering, business planning, accounting and structural advice; urgently addressing inefficiencies in the criminal justice system digital strategy, exploring if the Ministry of Justice can provide grants for investment in digital infrastructure; and setting up a working group to make the legal aid system more efficient.
The government has also indicated that it may allow defence teams to receive payment when proceedings are cancelled and delayed by the Crown Prosecution Service, when they currently receive just a single fixed fee.
We have also persuaded the government to drop its proposals for a single flat fee irrespective of plea; to address the most serious deficiencies in its plans for a single national fixed fee for police station attendance; and monitor the implementation phase running up to start of contracts. It has also committed to begin a review of the changes to criminal legal aid within a year of the new contracts commencing. This review will be published.
As we continue to fight to secure our members’ best interests, and to ease the transition, we will continue to consult our practitioner groups and reach out to as many members as possible. This will include face-to-face meetings as well as guidance and advice on adapting to the government’s changes.
Nicholas Fluck is president of the Law Society