Family Legal Aid Reform - Justice Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by M Mackey, president of the Manchester Law Society

  I am writing to you on the LSC's proposals for the future of criminal defence services, termed "Best Value Tendering for Criminal Defence Services". I am the President of the Manchester Law Society and, as you may be aware, Greater Manchester is one of the so-called pilot areas for the above scheme.

  Although I write as President, I should point out that I have practised criminal law for over 35 years and I am senior partner of Burton Copeland, a nationally recognised volume supplier of services. My firm has supported previous Legal Aid Board initiatives, we do not have a reputation for aggressive billing, have always been LSC "category 1" and were preferred a supplier for criminal work in that LSC project.

  As a practitioner myself, and representative of others, I am anxious that the LSC appears to be pressing ahead with yet another hopeless initiative; this one being a straight run to disaster; for defendants, even the innocent, the criminal justice system and, of course, the practitioners who facilitate access to justice in the provision of legal advice and representation.

  I appreciate that mainstream opinion may not concern itself with the provision of a legal system that strives for justice, except, of course until there is a major and high profile miscarriage, such as befell my client, the late Sally Clark.

  My key point is that what the Government is proposing is not "best value" or indeed any other sort of tender. This is an auction based on lowest cost. This risk, and the consequent potential for either significant reductions in service quality, or simply supplier failure, following a "loss-leader" bid, was highlighted by your Committee itself in its 2007 report on the Carter review. The problem is that there is no provision for the assessment of quality to be a factor in successful bids. The reason for this is that, despite the years since legal aid was entrusted to the Commission, they have never been able properly to assess quality. In your 2007 report your committee said "Lord Carter and the LSC envisage a bidding process against the criteria of quality, capacity and price. Not much is known about the LSC's current thinking about the design of the tendering process." It does not appear that the LSC has advanced its thinking on "robust quality control" beyond setting a floor.

  The so-called "peer review" approach seeks no more than "threshold competence"; and that is a phrase coined by LSC, not mine. Small wonder then that over 90% of all suppliers achieve this. Nevertheless, achievement of threshold competence is the only quality criterion proposed in bid qualification; therefore competition will not, and cannot, take place on quality of supply.

  As a practitioner, I have tendered (successfully in some cases) to provide legal services direct to the government itself. It seems when procuring for itself, the government is rightly concerned with cost, but also every tender I've completed requires demonstrations of quality, innovation and so on.

  The proposals have so many flaws that I could not begin to address them in a letter so for the detail I refer you to the responses to the LSC's consultation from [the Law Society] [Legal Aid Practitioners Group] [others?].

  I do ask that your committee consider an urgent review of what is proposed. Unfortunately, the time scale proposed by LSC is such that within months it will too late for action.

26 June 2009

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