The government’s decision to drop the idea of price competitive tendering (PCT) for criminal defence work is definitive proof that there is no link with the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA), which is going ahead as planned, the Bar Standards Board said yesterday.
Opponents of QASA have always linked the two, arguing that QASA would give false comfort to defendants about their barrister in a post-PCT world where, as originally proposed, there would not choice of advocate.
Yesterday Lord Chancellor Chris Grayling announced that following a deal struck with the Law Society he would allow all solicitors to continue undertaking criminal legal aid work for their own clients, subject to meeting minimum quality requirements.
There would be a tendering model for duty matters – estimated to be around 40% of criminal work – based on quality, not price. There will be a 17.5% cut to fees by spring 2015, however.
Bar Standards Board director Dr Vanessa Davies said: “There can now be absolutely no doubt, as we have always maintained, that there is no link between PCT and QASA. The scheme will, as planned, be launched on 30 September 2013.”
The new blueprint should slow down the rate of consolidation for the 1,600 firms that currently provide criminal legal aid, but speaking in Parliament Mr Grayling said it will still happen.
“There has been an acceptance from both of us [the Ministry of Justice and the Law Society] that these changes will lead to consolidation,” he told MPs. “They will lead to bigger, but not giant, firms, which are more equipped to deal with a tough financial climate but will continue to deliver a quality service. That is what we are looking to achieve.”
Mr Grayling also announced an independent review of the future of independent criminal advocacy in England and Wales, to report in six months’ time. “It is clear to me that advocacy is facing many challenges, from the rise of different routes into the profession, increasing supply but decreasing demand, regulatory changes, as well as financial challenges,” he said.
He has appointed former senior civil servant Sir Bill Jeffrey to lead the review. Sir Bill, who spent a good deal of time at the Home Office during his career, was permanent secretary at the Ministry of Defence prior to his retirement in 2010. He currently chairs the Police Foundation.
Dr Davies said: “We are looking forward to engaging constructively with the review, with the public interest as our focus.”