Law Society – legal aid proposals offer a challenging but sustainable future

05 Sep, 2013

The Government has today published a modified set of reform proposals for the procurement of criminal legal aid following agreement with the Law Society.

Law Society president Nicholas Fluck (pictured) welcomed the proposals as “a shared way forward for a more stable and sustainable criminal legal aid system”.

Nicholas Fluck said: “We welcome today’s publication, which follows constructive discussions with the Lord Chancellor and his officials. He has listened to the concerns of the profession and we are confident that the agreed proposal represents the best achievable outcome for our members and those who rely on legal aid.

“Throughout our discussions It has been clear that we share two key objectives: to ensure the continued provision of high quality legal services for those accused of a crime who would otherwise be unable to pay and, to secure long-term sustainability in the criminal legal aid sector.  It is with these objectives in mind that we have agreed to the modified proposals.

“The new proposals will demand considerable change, but offer genuine opportunities for those firms who wish to continue to provide these crucial legal services. Crucially, all firms that meet the required quality standards will be entitled to continue conducting own client work. We don’t, however, underestimate the challenges ahead, but we are committed to working with solicitors and their firms to support them through the necessary changes.

“No change is not, and has never been, a realistic option. The current market is ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of the future. However, we made clear in our response to the spring consultation and in subsequent discussions with officials that price competitive tendering was highly unlikely to bring about the sustainable change the sector needs.”

The proposals published today would mean:

  • Clients able to choose their own legal aid lawyer.
  • Tendering criteria based on quality and capacity, not on price.
  • All firms meeting minimum quality criteria qualify for own client contracts
  • Contracts will cover smaller geographical areas where populations are thinly spread.
  • More time for firms to prepare for the new contract arrangements.

Nicholas Fluck added: “In order to guarantee access to justice nationwide, we recognise the need for a new contracting arrangement for duty work, and have today agreed with the Ministry of Justice that we will jointly commission independent research into the contract size required to assure viability. This work will determine the ceiling on the number and size of duty solicitor contracts to be awarded.

“Even under these revised proposals, practitioners offering criminal legal aid services face a challenging future. We recognise the Government’s financial constraints mean reductions to legal aid fees are regrettably inevitable. These fee cuts will be very challenging for many of our members, but we have sought the best outcome in the circumstances. The Lord Chancellor has agreed to stage fee reductions, in order to give firms more time to adjust, and he has also agreed to extend the system of interim payments in order to ease the cash flow pressure on solicitors.

“Though challenging, today’s proposals represent the opportunity of a long-term sustainable future for many of our members working in criminal legal aid.”

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