POA Circulars

158 | 16.10.2013

Reforming Criminal Legal Aid

The Ministry of Justice is consulting again on reforming criminal legal aid, having retreated from its original proposals that restricted client choice of law firms by selecting them on the basis of price.

When the Ministry of Justice first announced the consultation in September, it said the closing date would be the 18th October. However, given the changes outlined below the return date for responses to the consultation has been extended to 1st November. Please see the following web-site:

https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/transforming-legal-aid-next-steps

The Government is still intent on using procurement to deliver ‘significant consolidation of the market’ and annual cost savings of £220m. However, it is now proposing a ‘modified model’ in which prices will be administratively fixed and not used as a criterion for awarding competitively-tendered Duty Provider contracts. The new proposals also place no restriction on the number of contracts, giving people the right to select any law firm as long as it meets Government-set standards. If these proposals are implemented in the current format the Legal Aid Committee will need to consider the impact, to ensure our members continue to receive the best representation.

While these changes are steps in the right direction, the proposals still contain major flaws with serious implications for access to justice. Specifically, the modified model includes:

  • A financial eligibility threshold that means any person with a household disposable income of £37,500 or more will not get legal aid. The Government says it wants to ensure that the ‘wealthiest’ Crown Court defendants who are able to pay do not get legal aid, but the relatively low threshold means millions of working people will be left to fund their own defence to prove their innocence. Those facing false allegations such as Prison Officers, Teachers or Nurses, will have to go into debt to pay for legal costs. In addition, if they are acquitted, they will only be reimbursed at legal aid rates even if they paid their lawyer more. (This is why it is vital for all legal claims to be pursued by the Unions retained Solicitors, Thompsons).
  • A 17.5% reduction in fees - though now in two stages: early 2014 and spring 2015.  The cut, for which there is no evidential justification and appears to be plucked out of the air will inevitably reduce the quality of legal advice on the High Street as cuts are made to already tight margins and could force many firms out of business.  The Law Society says it has ‘the gravest reservations’ about the ability of criminal law firms’ supply base to withstand further cuts in rates.

Thompsons are preparing a detailed response to the consultation and will be circulating a draft of this in the next 14 days.

I again urge all members to contact their MP, register their concerns over these proposals and support the Union and Thompsons in the campaign for justice.

Thanking you in anticipation, action and co-operation on these issues.

Yours sincerely

 


STEVE GILLAN
General Secretary