Transforming Legal Aid: evidence taken by the Committee - Justice Committee Contents


Appendix C - correspondence from the President of the Law Society


Letter dated 1st July 2013 from Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President, Law Society, to the Chair of the Justice Committee

As I set out in my evidence to your Committee on 11 June, the Law Society has serious concerns about the proposal for the introduction of price competitive tendering for criminal legal aid contracts. That model, in our view, would have negative consequences for the provision of high quality legal aid services in England and Wales.

However, I am in no doubt that the Lord Chancellor desires to undertake a genuine consultation. He has said many times that he is open to alternative proposals which achieve the same core objectives

For this reason, the Society has been engaging closely with the Ministry of Justice since the launch of this consultation to articulate another approach which we feel better balances the objectives of the Ministry, the legal profession and the public interest.

We are encouraged that most of our objectives are in fact shared, not least the desire to secure long-term sustainability in the criminal legal services sector and to ensure the continued provision of high quality criminal legal defence services for those accused of a crime who would otherwise be unable to pay.

We also agree with the Lord Chancellor that the status quo is not an option. In part as a consequence of the uncertainty that has plagued criminal legal aid, the market has become dominated by 'micro' firms, on a very fragile financial footing. The market is, at present, ill equipped to deal with the challenges of a falling crime rate, over-capacity and a difficult economic climate.

We do not disagree on the need for change. However, the proposed model of price competitive tendering, is highly unlikely, in our view, to bring about the sustainable change the sector needs.

In my recent constructive discussions with the Lord Chancellor we have talked instead about the necessity of retaining client choice, not only because it is an important principle in our legal system, but because it is a driver of quality. We have also discussed the extent to which the present market conditions mean that a more measured timescale for proposed consolidation is likely to address concerns about disorderly market exit and the possibility of localised 'advice deserts'. On both of these points the Lord Chancellor has listened carefully to our arguments and promised to look again. We are particularly encouraged by his indication that he expects to make changes in respect of client choice.

On this basis, we have agreed to work together over the coming weeks and months to explore further the Society's alternative proposals to manage change in the market on a sustainable basis, using a framework of quality and capacity criteria within a system of rolling contracts. We acknowledge that the Ministry of Justice's settlement under the Comprehensive Spending Review means that no area of the budget can escape savings.

We are today publishing the details of our alternative model, which has been drafted with the support of the representative bodies of the criminal solicitors' profession. The proposal sets out in quite some detail our plan for change in the criminal legal aid system that balances objectives and achieves the change that is necessary for long-term sustainability of supply. We are looking forward to discussing its contents in detail with the Ministry.

The Law Society continues to seek the best long-term outcome for the legal profession and the public interest. We will continue to develop our alternative proposal by investigating how and where law firms can innovate and develop their business models and look forward to sharing this insight with the Ministry.

I would be happy to discuss the Society's proposals with the Committee further, and look forward to the outcome of your investigation into this important policy area.


 
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Prepared 18 July 2013