ABSs can facilitate criminal legal aid revolution, argues former justice minister

Djanogly: Larger-scale system of contracting

The legal market is “totally fragmented, under-capitalised, technologically semi-illiterate and structurally redundant”, a former justice minister has claimed, arguing that a smaller number of big firms is the answer to the problems with criminal legal aid.

Conservative MP Jonathan Djanogly, a former City solicitor said criminal practice was characterised by “large numbers of barely profitable firms that are all too often unable to properly serve clients through lack of manpower, inability to invest in training of staff and trainees, and a lamentable lack of technology”.

Speaking during the recent parliamentary debate on criminal legal aid, he continued: “I recall trying to persuade criminal defence solicitors to take prosecution evidence online rather than in paper bundles, but the resistance was ferocious.

“Why? Because large numbers of solicitors were running their small practices from their homes and could not afford to invest in the required technology.

“That type of inefficiency also goes to the Bar, with advocates often getting court papers late, which may have worked for the single lever arch file deposited in times gone by, but with not the online data dump that can now be sent.”

Mr Djanogly argued that the answer to this situation, “without any doubt”, was consolidation of “this fractured nineteenth-century legal services marketplace”.

He said a larger-scale system of contracting for legal aid work would speed the process of reducing the number of small firms.

“That would involve fewer but larger practices operating over a larger area, resulting in fewer firms receiving a larger slice of the remaining pie on a single-fee basis.

“In turn, it would create firms that have the money to invest in training and technology, and with the size and depth required properly to cover the contract areas.

“Yes, we have more data than ever before, but charging to read it on a per page basis is simply outdated. Most of the extra data is useless guff from, say, social media.

“The answer is to have firms of lawyers that are able to invest in the technology now available to sort the wheat from the chaff. That will only come from market consolidation, and a vital aspect of that will be to treat barristers and solicitor equally.

“If teams of barristers wish to compete for legal aid contracts, they should be free to do so, in the same way as sole-practitioner solicitors band together with other solicitors, or indeed with barristers, to bid for contracts.”

Alternative business structures provided the mechanism for this consolidation, Mr Djanogly said.

“Solicitors and barristers could work together, and the alternative business structures could raise capital and employ non-legal executive managers to run an effective business. We would then start to see a sustainable market taking shape.

“I have some sympathy with those who complain that the criminal justice system is creaking at the seams, but rather less sympathy with those who say that the answer is more of the same.

“We need to face up to the need to change the rules of the game and of the marketplace. The tools and answers are certainly out there if we are prepared to take the required steps.”

    Readers Comments

  • Paul Tawn says:

    The bloke hasn’t got a clue. There’s no profit in the work so ABS will not go anywhere near it unless given some sweetener by the bent politicos trying to prove a point!
    If ABS do venture in they will soon appreciate the reality of the situation and will fail. There are examples of this in the NHS and perhaps on a grander scale the screw up that Grayling has been in charge of with the East Coast Rail franchise.

  • Ian Dodd says:

    Djanogly is completely correct. The legal aid criminal defence business model the bar uses is Dickensian. No-one, for example, needs to read pages of disclosed/undisclosed evidence, data or statements when an AI programme, properly designed & implemented, will do it quicker, cheaper and with no mistakes.

  • Mary Cleaver says:

    The man has no idea. Don’t criticise criminal defence lawyers for lacking technology and then pay them so little that the types of technological infrastructure he envisages aren’t affordable. No large firm can function on these rates, what a buffoon! He is also plainly clueless when it comes to the requirements of the legal aid contract; I don’t know any criminal defence solicitors working from the sofa. Come and spend a day with us, let me show you how wrong you are. Easy rhetoric from the under informed.

  • Sohail Razaque says:

    If this was the case, large firms would have set up years ago but seeing that little profits would be the end result, they thought otherwise. The large firms that do exist don’t solely survive on crime alone but use it to give an all round service. Even the biggest firm can have failures like large scale data breaches or end up like some large firm catastrophe with underhand accounting practices and large scale debt. Eg Tesco, BT, Carrilion. Even the government run PDS couldn’t make a profit in most branches. Come up with a better idea when the country is in profit.

  • Paul Shepherd says:

    The problem with the criminal legal aid system, besides the fact that fees have decreased over the last 20 years, but the standards have increased, is that it is always people who have no understanding of the system are asked to resolve it.
    I am certain that as a former “city” solicitor, he would not be advising his clients that he received additional evidence, but he did not review it as it was likely to be guff and i have therefore not charged you extra?
    He suggests that we improve and embrace technology, whilst dismissing the difference of free flowing chat on facebook, instead of taking the S9 witness statement as gospel. I have served facebook messages on the CPS which have led to prosecutions being dismissed.
    Defence solicitors have to have systems in place under the contract, case management systems, LAA billing is online, CCDCS all online. The defence have moved with the times, its just the government that has not invested in criminal legal aid, as it does not win votes.
    The rules of the marketplace is dictated by the LAA, who believe that we should not charge to wait at court or travel to court and make ourselves available for 24hrs on duty call for no remuneration, so the nineteenth century system of the LAA needs to change.

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