Dame Ursula Brennan, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), faced angry questions from opposition MPs yesterday as to why a highly critical report on the criminal legal aid cuts had only been released last month – more than a year after it was finished.
Elfyn Llywd, a Plaid Cymru MP, told the justice select committee he had carried out legal aid work as a solicitor and barrister and “might in the future if there is anything left of it”.
He said the report by PA Consulting, available in August 2013, warned that only the top 25% of criminal legal aid firms in terms of profitability could survive a further 8.75% fee cut. The report was eventually released as part of the disclosure around the successful judicial review brought against the MoJ’s consultation process.
The MP asked Dame Ursula why it had only just “come to light” and did not form part of the recent consultation by the MoJ on duty solicitor contracts.
She said the department had a “range of information” on which to base the policy it wished to consult on and the PA Consulting report was not part of it.
“It wasn’t used as part of the policy decision, and so we didn’t publish it,” Dame Ursula said. “We have now published it.”
Mr Llywd said that not only did the report find that only the top 25% of law firms could survive, but the authors of another report, Otterburn, questioned the MoJ’s interpretation of their research.
Dame Ursula said that the MoJ believed that in the long-term, the criminal legal aid cuts would be sustainable.
Admitting that criminal legal aid was a “really difficult and contentious issue”, she said crime was falling, making it difficult for firms to “make the kinds of profits they had in the past”.
Dame Ursula went on: “We have had to make very tough savings in the public service part of our business and I’m afraid we’ve had to look to our suppliers to do the same.”
Labour MP John McDonnell returned to the PA Consulting report. “How could the report not be relevant?” he asked. “It clearly indicates that a number of firms will go to the wall. How could that not be relevant?”
Mr McDonnell accused the permanent secretary of “deliberately refusing” to look at the report.
Dame Ursula denied this, before the committee chairman, Liberal Democrat elder statesman Sir Alan Beith, repeatedly intervened to call Mr McDonnell to order.
“It’s just unbelievable,” Mr McDonnell added.