MoJ mandarin refuses to say if criminal lawyers will get “the full 15%”

Romeo: Law Society won on narrow grounds

The top official at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) yesterday refused to say whether criminal law solicitors will get the 15% pay rise recommended by Lord Bellamy, in heated exchanges at the House of Commons with the Conservative chair of the justice select committee.

Sir Bob Neill asked permanent secretary Antonia Romeo whether the MoJ was not at risk of “damaging faith” with the legal profession by trying to “wriggle out” of paying the full increase recommended by Lord Bellamy in his independent review of criminal legal aid.

Ms Romeo refused to accept Sir Bob’s description of the High Court ruling in January on a judicial review brought by the Law Society over failure to implement the increase as a “victory” for the society.

Lord Justice Singh and Mr Justice Jay ruled that the decision made by former Lord Chancellor Dominic Raab not to pay the full 15% increase recommended by Lord Bellamy was irrational, describing the system of criminal legal aid as “coming apart at the seams”.

In a session about the operations of the MoJ, Sir Bob, who is standing down at the upcoming election, said: “It comes down to this, doesn’t it, that the Law Society won the action and the High Court ruled in their favour and the government, fair enough, said it was not going to appeal the decision.”

Ms Romeo replied: “There were four grounds and the claimants were successful on two quite specific, narrow grounds on two particular points. A number of arguments were rejected and some were upheld.”

Sir Bob responded: “Beyond saving the department’s face, on the substantial issue the Law Society won, so are you going to pay them the money?”

Mr Romeo said: “It’s a question of whether it is the substantive issue. We’ll be looking at the judgment and will respond in due course.” She added that the Law Society had said it would not be appealing the decision.

Sir Bob argued that “people are leaving the profession”, and asked again whether “the full 15%” was going to be paid, and if so when.

Referring to an earlier response that the MoJ was consulting on a £21m package of fee rises for criminal law solicitors involved in police station and youth justice work, which would amount to an 11% increase overall, Ms Romeo said she did not want to “pre-judge” the issue.

Sir Bob said 11% was “still not Bellamy” and asked: “Does it not damage faith between the department and the legal profession in that the department is taking almost every legal avenue to wriggle out of paying what Bellamy recommended?”

Ms Romeo responded: “There are things that are matters for officials and things that are matters for ministers.”

Sir Bob replied: “It may not be your decision, but I wonder as an accounting officer whether you think it would be better just to pay up than risk ongoing tension.”

Ms Romeo repeated that the MoJ would “completely abide by the decision”.

In another tense exchange earlier in the session, solicitor MP James Daly accused the MoJ of “losing control” over a “terrible” Probate Service, when firing questions at the head of HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), Nick Goodwin.

Mr Daly questioned how many solicitors were consulted before HMCTS took the “dramatic step [of] not answering the phone to clear the backlog”.

Mr Goodwin said simple digital applications could be turned round in two weeks, but the service had not been able to “keep up with more complex cases”.

He said that against a background of “record demand”, the service had made the mistake, before the pandemic, of not putting cases through to more experienced staff.

He said a decision was made in mid-April that probate staff should not answer afternoon phone calls, so they could tackle the backlog of cases. The decision was discussed with a number of practitioners, who were not against the change.

Mr Goodwin said the service had improved performance by limiting phone calls, many of which were simply chasing grants of probate.

Mr Daly said the service had been “a disaster over the last couple of years”, and the number of lawyers spoken to must have been “very small”.

He added: “This is an example of the MoJ losing control over an agency which is not delivering, for reasons I don’t understand.”

The select committee is currently undertaking an inquiry into the probate process.

See blog from last month: The Ministry of Justice and legal aid – A dereliction of duty

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