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The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, made some interesting comments about the overall contracting regime. I had some sympathy with the general tenor of his remarks about the increase in the length of trials and whether an over-bureaucratic approach has been taken to contract management. There have been bureaucratic aspects to how contracts have been approved, which have been successful in controlling costs, but clearly we need to do better on how they are managed in future. This is not just a comment about very high cost cases, but is a general comment that has been made to me by representatives of legal organisations about the work of the Legal Services Commission. The Legal Services Commission is anxious to engage with the profession on how some of the bureaucratic controls can be reduced. I encourage that, within the constraints of public accountancy and the requirements of the National Audit Office and PAC. The LSC clearly has a delicate balance to draw there, but more needs to be done. There will be further discussions with the Bar Council and the Law Society.



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The noble Lord is right to say that it is important that there is no cartel or closed shop. I assure him that the second and subsequent panels will not be restricted to suppliers who are successful in getting on the first panel. It clearly must be in the long-term interest of the Legal Services Commission to ensure that there are alternative providers for the second and subsequent panels.

The noble Lord quoted paragraphs 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 of the regulatory impact assessment, and endorsed the aim of ensuring that work in this area is rewarding and fairly paid for those who take part in it. We want them to feel that it is worth while investing in technology, training and high quality recruitment, as the RIA suggests. That is a general principle that I would subscribe to throughout the legal aid sector. Noble Lords will know that we are in a challenging time, and many firms are seriously considering how they will engage in the new structure—solicitors as well as barristers. I want lawyers to feel that working in the legal aid sector is rewarding and is a field in which bright, young lawyers would wish to practise in the future. That is partly about how we developed the fee structure and partly about how best-value tendering comes into being in some aspects of the legal aid programme.

It is also about how we improve the general efficiency of the criminal justice system as a whole. Much of the change in the structure of legal aid fees is designed to encourage greater efficiency and effectiveness. However, defence teams are but one aspect of improving efficiency and effectiveness. My brief tenure in this department has led me to visit Coventry magistrates’ court to look at the CJSSS scheme, which is designed to improve the efficiency of the magistrates’ courts in Coventry and has had great success. All involved, including defence lawyers, the CPS, the police, the Bench and the court administration, have recognised that by people working together the system can work more effectively for everyone. Clearly I am talking about magistrates’ courts, whereas the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, referred to a different area of the legal system.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: The Minister has left out very important stakeholders—the defendants. What do they think of the system?

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath: That is a very fair point indeed. Some defendants may not deem more effective access to justice and quick dispensation of justice in their best interests. However, I can take a public interest view of this, that overall the system seems to work better. All that I meant to do before I foolishly went down that path was to agree with the noble Lord that simply dealing with how defence teams are paid will not in itself produce the developments that the RIA suggests. There have to be changes to the system as a whole, but defence teams can play their part and the fee structure will help that.

With those remarks, I thank noble Lords for their contribution.

On Question, Motion agreed to.


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