Fears that the government is reducing the justice system to a ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ model were today further allayed as the Justice Secretary backtracked on his proposals to award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidders.
In a deal reached with the Law Society after listening to the concerns of dozens of criminal practitioners, Chris Grayling has dropped price competitive tendering (PCT).
The measures received widespread criticism from opponents such as former Wilberforce Chambers barrister-turned-Labour-MP Karl Turner, who described the measure as the ‘latest attack on our legal aid system [as it] undermines the presumption of innocence and puts money before the quality of provision.’
The Labour MP was among many to raise fears that PCT would lead to the market becoming dominated by multinationals such as G4S, Serco, and Capita at the expense of more experienced smaller firms, and it was Turner who accused the Lord Chancellor of taking a dangerous ‘stack it high and sell it cheap’ approach.
‘We will see less-qualified people providing a less qualified service,’ he said in a parliamentary debate.
ObiterJ, blogging at Law and Lawyers, added: ‘Stripped to its essentials, it means that anyone charged with an offence and who requires legal aid – (that is, most people) – will be allocated a defence lawyer working for one of a small number of large ‘defence factory’ commercial providers. This lawyer will earn money by case turnover and so will not want to spend too much time on your case and the temptation to advise clients to plead guilty and get it over with will be there.’
The PCT reversal is the second U-turn over changes to legal aid, after the MoJ abandoned proposals that would have prevented defendants choosing their own solicitor.
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. 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.’
‘We were relieved to see that the Ministry of Justice has listened to the public and to the profession about the importance of retaining client choice,’ said Maura McGowan QC, chair of the Bar Council. ‘It is deeply regrettable that the Ministry does not appear to have moved on many other areas of justified and evidenced concern.
‘It remains the case that cuts to legal aid are the harshest in the public sector. The amount of money which the Ministry of Justice is seeking to save does not justify the consequences of these cuts. It is inevitable that this will impact heavily on the quality of both criminal and civil legal aid. The people who lose out the most are the public who rely on a justice system which operates efficiently in the public interest.
‘We shall study the paper carefully. Our response will aim to preserve the heart of the legal aid scheme that has played such a vital role in providing access to justice for all.’
The Chancellor is expected to make a statement in the House of Commons today (5 September) on the transformation of legal aid that will cut £220m off the annual criminal legal aid budget.