Michael Gove in U-turn over legal aid fund

Cuts to legal aid fees for duty criminal solicitors who represent suspects in police stations and magistrates courts, are to be suspended, Michael Gove, the justice secretary, has announced in the department’s latest policy U-turn.

As well as surrendering the 8.75% fee cut, a controversial contracts tendering procedure which would restrict the number of law firms permitted to do duty legal work, is also to be abandoned, the Ministry of Justice confirmed.

Both highly unpopular reforms, which aimed at consolidating the profession and effectively forcing many solicitors’ firms to merge or close, were initiated by Chris Grayling, the previous justice secretary.

Gove has already reversed many of Grayling’s money saving initiatives, including the ban on prisoners receiving books from their families and the equally detested courts charge, a mandatory payment of up to £1,200 imposed on all convicted defendants.

Announcing the about-turn in a Commons written ministerial statement, Gove pointed out that over the last parliament annual spending on legal aid was reduced from £2.4bn to £1.6bn.

Law firms feared that awarding a limited number of “dual contracts” – under which solicitors take on duty legal aid work at police stations and magistrates courts as well as represent their own clients – would lead to a less diverse and competitive market.

“Many barristers feared that the commercial model being designed by some solicitors’ firms would lead to a diminution in choice and potentially quality,” the justice secretary acknowledged. “And many also pointed out that a process of natural consolidation was taking place in the criminal legal aid market, as crime reduced and natural competition took place.”

Since July 2015, Gove added, two significant developments had occurred: “Firstly, thanks to economies I have made elsewhere in my department HM Treasury have given me a settlement which allows me greater flexibility in the allocation of funds for legal aid.

“Secondly, it has become clear, following legal challenges mounted against our procurement process, that there are real problems in pressing ahead as initially proposed. My department currently faces 99 separate legal challenges over the procurement process, which has required us, anyway, to stay the award of new contracts at least until April.

“In addition, a judicial review challenging the entire process has raised additional implementation challenges. Given how delicately balanced the arguments have always been ... I have decided not to go ahead with the introduction of the dual contracting system.

“I have also decided to suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April 2016, the second fee cut [of 8.75%] which was introduced in July last year. As a consequence of these decisions the new fee structure linked to the new contracts will not be introduced.”

Instead, existing duty legal aid contracts will be extended. And an advisory council of solicitors and barristers to help find ways to reduce “unnecessary bureaucratic costs, eliminate waste, and end continuing abuses within the current legal aid system” will be created.

Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said: “In its planning and execution the MoJ has demonstrated shocking incompetence with this tender exercise. The criminal justice system would be best served by a period of reflection and above all consultation by the justice secretary, rather than rushing to take decisions which could be as equally ill fated.”

Matt Foot, co‐founder of the Justice Alliance, said: “The government’s arrogance to ignore virtually the whole profession and attack access to justice in this cavalier way has been stopped by us standing together. Our packed out rally showed the widespread support for proper legal aid to stop miscarriages and fight injustice, such as that experienced by the victims of the so called ‘spy cops’, or the Stephen Lawrence family.”

Jonathan Smithers, president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors across England and Wales, said: “[We are] pleased that the lord chancellor has listened and recognised that the current situation is untenable. A competitive approach to the provision of criminal legal aid services is not appropriate. Criminal legal aid solicitors provide 24-hour cover so that anyone accused of wrongdoing, including some of the most vulnerable in society, have access to expert legal advice. The assurance that there will be no competitive tendering in the future gives practitioners greater certainty for the future.

“We have constantly said that we fear the profession will be unable to cope with significant fee reductions and are therefore relieved that the lord chancellor has listened to our concerns. Criminal legal aid solicitors are at the heart of the criminal justice system, defending vulnerable suspects and upholding the rule of law. It is in the interests of the public, the legal profession, government and justice, that high-quality firms remain able to deliver the expert legal advice people need.

“The purpose of the criminal court system is to ensure justice for all by convicting the guilty and protecting the innocent. Of those who plead not guilty in the crown court, well over half are acquitted, which is why people accused of wrongdoing must be given access to good quality legal help, whatever their means.”

Mark Fenhalls QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, said: “[We] applaud the lord chancellor’s decision to abandon the MoJ’s flawed plans to reform the duty contracts for legal aid solicitors. It takes courage to make such decisions. The CBA is wholly committed to working with the ministry and the solicitors’ profession to build reforms to make sure the public is once more served by an efficient and world-class criminal justice system.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Owen Bowcott Legal affairs correspondent, for theguardian.com on Thursday 28th January 2016 17.07 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010