The Ministry of Justice today showed the first sign of cracking under the weight of pressure over its plans to reform criminal legal aid, with the Lord Chancellor ditching the plan to end client choice of solicitor.
However, in a letter to Alan Beith MP, chairman of the justice select committee – before which he is appearing tomorrow – Chris Grayling warned that “no-one should doubt the need for my department to reduce its expenditure on criminal legal aid” and said he had agreed with the Law Society to work towards “managed market consolidation”.
Mr Grayling insisted that the consultation – which received 16,000 responses – is a “genuine” exercise.
“One specific point in the consultation which has attracted significant response is the proposal to remove client choice in the model for competition for criminal litigation. The rationale for proposing this change was to give greater certainty of case volume for providers, making it easier and more predictable for them to organise their businesses to provide the most cost-effective service to the taxpayer – it is not a policy objective in its own right.
“However, I have heard clearly from the Law Society and other respondents that they regard client choice as fundamental to the effective delivery of criminal legal aid. I am therefore looking again at this issue, and expect to make changes to allow a choice of solicitor for clients receiving criminal legal aid.”
Mr Grayling continued that he has agreed to “explore further” proposals put forward by the Law Society “to consolidate the market in stages, using quality and capacity criteria to achieve this”.
Having met Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff last week, he said: “We were both clear that any future scheme for criminal legal aid must guarantee quality legal advice and representation is available, without giving rise to advice deserts. We agreed that in order to meet the challenges of the future, a managed market consolidation is necessary, ensuring services are sustainable.
“It is only through sharing back-office costs, developing new ways of working, and driving economies of scale – in the same way that all businesses and public sector organisations have had to do over the past few years – that legal aid providers can sustainably provide a cost-effective quality service both for their clients and the taxpayer.”
Ms Scott-Moncrieff said she welcomed the government showing “it is serious about constructive engagement”.
Its alternative to price competitive tendering, published today, is based loosely on the rolling General Medical Service contracts for GP surgeries – where a contract is periodically renewed subject to meeting the statutory and mandatory obligations under the contract. Mandatory obligations of the legal aid contract would take the form of a quality and capacity framework, which would specify a number of criteria a firm must achieve in order to retain its contract.
Ms Scott-Moncrieff said: “I won’t pretend that our alternative, if adopted, will result in flags waving in every solicitors’ firm – it is in many respects the least worse solution. We have consulted with the main practitioner groups and where possible, addressed their major concerns.
“I am satisfied that, within the parameters of political reality, our proposal sets out a workable future for criminal legal aid clients, solicitors and the wider justice system that is a million miles away from the unworkable approach initially proposed by government.”