Government to prioritise cheapest legal aid firms over the best

Apart from limiting access to legal aid the government plans to save money by driving down fees payable to legal aid lawyers for their services. The key component of the policy is to reduce the number of government of legal aid providers from 1,600 to 400. This, it says, will create economies of scale and reduce overheads as existing companies merge, new ones are formed and external service providers, such as haulage firm Eddie Stobart, enter the market.

Companies will then bid for contracts (through Price-Competitive Tendering (PCT) knocking at least 17.5 per cent of current prices) covering particular geographical areas where they must offer the full range of legal aid services – attending police stations, representing clients in court, appeals – in every field of law (long and complex cases are excluded from the process). To achieve this, however, companies must be guaranteed an equal share of the work so the government has proposed that it will appoint solicitors in some arbitrary fashion rather than let people chose. And here lies the problem.

There will be no more specialist solicitor firms who have built up decades of experience in a particular field (prison, immigration, protest, etc), there will be no more local high street firms that have built up trust with particular communities or individuals, no more changing solicitors should they prove ineffective or the relationship breaks down and no more incentive for law firms to be the best, merely the cheapest.

In addition, the cuts to fees and the drive for profits will mean solicitors’ wages will be driven down with the likely outcome being an army of young, inexperienced and underpaid solicitors representing clients against the government.

Breda Power, who’s father Billy spent 16 years in prison after he was wrongly accused of bombing two Birmingham pubs in 1974, said: “One of the biggest impediments of the Birmingham Six was not having the opportunity under the system then to change their legal representatives, two young and very inexperienced duty solicitors, when the men realised [the solicitors] were unable to put the case to the court competently. It wasn’t until the men were able to select their own choice of legal representation … that their case took off.”

However, in an interview with the Law Gazette, justice minister, Chris Grayling, dismissed the impact of the government appointing solicitors by controversially implying that most people caught up in the criminal justice system couldn’t tell the difference between one lawyer and another. He said: “I don’t believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds.”

His comments drew a furious response at the time with lawyer and former Tory MP Jerry Hayes describing his remarks as an ‘absolute disgrace’. He said: “People are either too dishonest or too stupid to have the solicitor of their choice. Too thick to pick. It’s an absolute disgrace.” And referring to the reduction in legal aid contracts from 1,600 to 400, he said: “Most [legal aid firms] will be thrown to the wall. Solicitors will disappear from the British high street and British justice will be put in the hands of the corporate bloodsuckers.”

Courtenay Griffiths QC said as a consequence decades of trust built-up between high street solicitors and the communities they serve will be lost damaging the credibility of the criminal justice system. He said: “Because of the historical relationship between certain communities, and let’s be frank the black community in particular, and more recently the Muslim community, and the criminal justice system and the police, many people … feel they can [only] trust lawyers who look like them. It seems to me that is going to be destroyed. It’s these small non-white firms that are going to be the first to disappear.”

Helena Kennedy QC agreed, saying it takes time and trust to get a client to open up to tell their story before they can be well represented in court.

Alistair Webster, a QC and Lib Dem peer, said the Price-Competitive Tendering model should at least be trialled before it’s rolled-out across the country. Instead, the government is expected to publish its response to the consultation in September. Companies who wish to bid for contracts will then have two months to submit a pre-qualification questionnaire – that proves they are suitable providers – meaning solicitors that continue to campaign against the proposals over the summer instead of merging and re-structuring with rival firms will miss out on the opportunity to tender in February next year. The legal aid reforms are expected to come into practice in September.

Chris Grayling said: “Unless somebody’s got a stunning alternative to PCT, it will go ahead in some form. There’s a lot of noise at the moment, but the smart people in the industry are already working on their plans for this, thinking through their business models.”

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