Justice Select Committee: one-off evidence session ‘Transforming Legal Aid Consultation’

Commons Select Committee: The Justice Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Justice and associated public bodies. Today, 11th June 2013, the Committee will hold a one-off evidence session in relation to Price Competitive Tendering Proposals in the Government’s Transforming Legal Aid Consultation

Witness(es):
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President, Law Society (LSM)
Bill Waddington, Chair, Criminal Law Solicitors Association (BW)
Michael Turner QC, Chair, Criminal Bar Association (MT)
Maura McGowan QC, Chair, Bar Council (MM)
Tudur Owen, Senior Partner, Tudur Owen Roberts Glynne & Co
Roger Smith OBE and Steve Brooker, Consumer Panel Manager, Legal Services Board

Notes of meeting:

Question – Do you agree that significant savings need to be made from legal aid budget?

LSM – We accept budget of MoJ is going down and we do not think legal aid should be exempt.
We do not have access to figures so we cannot say if it is fair. Level of cuts is divorced from PCT. PCT is not cutting, it is surviving the cuts – and it will make it more unsurvivable. Our concerns are with PCT.

MM – LASPO took £350million out of legal aid. Proposed saving of £220million from criminal budget in PCT document

MT – Mr Grayling won’t even see me. There is huge waste in system

LSM – We do accept that there needs to be a restructure – fragile & unsubstanable market – this should not be the reorganization. If it is accompanied by realistic savings, then it is more likely to be successful

MM – Bar’s view is slightly different, PCT does not have direct effect on the way we work. There are savings to be made without total restricting which would achieve savings required, if they are required. The entire system should be reviewed properly.

MM – This devastates the profession, and has a real impact on victims. Restructuring can deliver a service that does exactly what it says on the tin.

Question – Re Police giving community penalties

MM – the figures that police issue contradict that. It may be a fall in rate of crime or reduction. That is not mirrored by an increase in the number of cautions.

Question – How much of a cut is sustainable in administering justice?

MM – I cannot put a figure on that. Research as part of response shows what we need to do to remain profitable to attract quality. We need time to convert to different ways of working.

Question Re PCT – Are you against per say or against it if linked with proposals? In public sector, PCT has worked. Why is it different for justice?

LSM – We already compete on quality. PCT 17.5% and compete below that price is completely unsustainable. Proper PCT without artificial constraint would be another story. This is not proper PCT. The savings do not come from PCT, it comes from 17.5% cut we start with.

MM – We can’t measure services. We are providing an institute plank in a democractic society, and I’m sorry if that sounds pompous but it is that important. I should not be getting the work because I am cheaper, and not necessarily better.

MT – I would say how has PCT worked for MOJ so far – it has been a complete and utter disaster.

Question – how would CJS feel with a pilot?

It would destroy the criminal justice system, even if only a pilot.

LSM – client choice does not comply with LASPO provisions and may not comply ECHR. We will be looking to challenge that. We think that is unlawful.

MM – Public defender continues that it provides a service but at a greater cost. Public defender is always cheaper elsewhere. Our system cannot be matched with any others. Our system is recognised as being far superior. Legal services industry brings in 1.6% GDP. You can’t measure that against any other system. We are superior, that is because CJS has a reputation of second to none.

Question – should we have a new model of legal aid?

LSM – Grayling says cuts are cuts, but PCT is to help fragile market survive these cuts. We say we accept it is a fragile market, but this is not the way to reform it in order to protect the system and give proper credit to practitioners. It will come to a point where no one will want to come and work in the criminal justice system.

Question – Grayling says without a stunning alternative to PCT, it will go ahead. What are your thoughts?

LSM – there is an alternative rather than being state controlled system, which is what they propose. We are speaking widely with Bar Council, colleagues to come up with good ideas on how the system will become more sustainable.

MT – a fundamental cornerstone of our industry is the independent bar, but we will lose it.

Question – which external factors will require reform, and if so, how? i.e. CPS, court system

LSM – as far as cut is concerned if the overheads are less, if you are spending less time on a case, then it is easier to survive that cut. Reforms in other parts of the system are important. We need to produce a proper coherent way to provide a future for those who want to work in the criminal justice system.

MM – that is something that cannot be achieved in 2 months. Put the whole thing on hold, take the savings as reduction in spend, look at the system as a whole. Allow the whole thing to work organically. They will respond and everything will go ahead.

LSM – for law firms to adapt to this, but you cannot adapt until you know what you have to adapt to, but even then they are not going to spend money transforming business until they know whether you have a contract or not. Completely impossible. We would be delighted if this whole thing would be put on hold.

MT – The MOJ have received 13,000 responses. How on earth can the MOJ be reading these responses properly in the short amount of time? Our responses are over 150 pages each. They have to be considered properly.

LSM – Criminal legal aid contracts alone will not survive.

Question – re fat cat lawyers

LSM – Average salary of a criminal legal aid lawyers – £20,000. We are not fat cat lawyers.

MM – I make this observation so you understand. HCC system will pay a QC in the most serious £500 a day gross. You have to half them to take account of fees, under the current system. But under the new proposals, it would be £250 going down to £175. It is not the luxurious wealth that the media makes out it is.

MT – Tapering system – would work or £14 per day – ludicrous.

LSM – Solicitors provide a 24/7 service at police stations. Doing a full night’s work at the police station, then going to Court and doing a full day there too, seeing witnesses, dealing with clients etc.

MT – Eddie Stobarts Barristers – He does not have one barrister on his books. He will be charging the public for putting his finger on the books and saying you can have that barrister. The public are entitled to that service for free. That is the kind of behavior is what will be let in to the justice system.

LSM – If the clients know that the solicitor or barrister has a significant financial interest in a guilty plea, there will be a lack of trust. If client is advised that the evidence is overwhelming, and the client will trust that advice and that they are doing their best.

MM – A repeat offender who is likely to be guilty, then he is somebody who is much more likely to take robust advice.

LSM – the idea that client choice is luxury is not right

Question – Do you have any hard evidence to support?

All – yes, all of our experience

BW – Yes we can give case studies from CPS, defence practitioners and judiciary to say the same – that they are against the proposals.

Question – Is the consultation flawed because the people who wrote it do not practice in this area?

LSM – I would not say that is why it is flawed, but it is flawed.

MM – the system is being stripped down to a bare minimum. This needs to be reviewed, and reviewed properly.

Question – There are few legal aid practices in inner city suburbs, what is your view on how this will affect those companies

LSM – if they cannot scale up to be able to cover a larger area, which most of them can’t, they would have to become agents or go out of business. The problem with being an agent is that you are dependent on a contract holder who would take the most interesting cases themselves. They will be badly affected. There are firms who specialise, for example, people who are deaf or forces personnel, there are all sorts of highly skilled people who will be lost.

Question – Law Centres are pressed and stressed, assume they will not be big enough? They are absolutely essential to access to justice.

LSM – if we have enough time, we can help all of these small firms remain sustainable.

BW – in my experience, I have never seen a defendant abuse the system to delay in any way.

MM – Most offenders do comply with the system.

BW – quality is the essential ingredient.

Notes taken from start of meeting at 0930 – 1100. This was typed very quickly, so please excuse any spelling and grammar inaccuracies.

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4 thoughts on “Justice Select Committee: one-off evidence session ‘Transforming Legal Aid Consultation’

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