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Legal Aid Reforms 'Reckless' says Constitutional Affairs Committe

The Times reports here, but negelcts to link to the actual report of the Constitutional Affairs Committee. Come on old media, get a clue.

Anyway, the report comes to the unsurprising conclusion that the reforms as planned present a real risk to access to justice. The move to a market based modelWhat Price Justice without any pilot is decribed as ‘reckless’. Blimey. If Yes Minister taught us that ‘brave’ means risky and lacking support in govt speak, then ‘reckless’ means catastrophically stupid. Harsh words indeed.

The report is well worth reading, for instance for the conclusions on the impact on BME firms, which fits nicely with the Judicial Review proceedings on begun by The Society of Asian Lawyers and Black Solicitors Network.

But the whole is deeply scathing on the lack of research and short-term driven approach to the reforms. As a taster from the section on Civil funding, para 134:

We strongly recommend that the Government reconsider the timing and comprehensiveness of the reforms. The problem areas of the legal aid budget (Crown Court defence work and child care proceedings) should be addressed swiftly, but we fail to see the need for potentially short-sighted transitional arrangements for legal aid remuneration in anticipation of the roll out of competitive tendering from October 2008, where there are already mechanisms for controlling unit costs or where the costs of cases appears to be under control. We can see merit in time in moving beyond Tailored Fixed Fees for instance, but the desire to impose inflexible national fixed fees against a shaky evidence base is unwise in the extreme. It is more so given the proposed move to competitive tendering. The LSC’s time would be far more wisely devoted to designing an appropriate system of competitive tendering, than it is to designing and implementing a suite of reforms which are fraught with difficulties and which are, in any event, only likely to be in place for a short period of time.

The LSC also gets a spanking for supressing the Otterburn report:

235. Another, even more critical example of the lack of trust between the Government and suppliers was the failure by the DCA/LSC to publish the crucial study by Andrew Otterburn on the impact of Lord Carter’s initial reform proposals, which the LSC had commissioned and received in November 2006.[282] This study, as can be seen throughout our report, was critical of the short transitional period between the introduction of the fee schemes and the roll-out of competitive tendering and of the lack of adequate evidence to come to a reliable assessment of the risks associated with the Lord Carter’s fixed fee proposals. It warned that changes to the timetable of the reforms should be made. While Lord Carter and the DCA had published a previous study by Andrew Otterburn of June 2006 on the criminal legal aid supplier base, this equally pertinent research remained unpublished. It was only on the initiative of suppliers’ representative groups that we were alerted to the study’s existence. It was eventually published in late February 2007 after we raised this issue with the Lord Chancellor.

236. While we accept the apology by the Lord Chancellor for what looked like an attempt by his Department and the LSC to suppress an important piece of research relating to the speed of the current reforms, we remain profoundly troubled by the handling of the Otterburn issue on the part of the LSC. [283] Its suggests an inability on the part of the LSC to address fairly and openly a critical aspect of the reforms: the ability of the supplier-base to survive the reform proposals.

Ouch.

So, to sum up, that is absolutely everybody, including the judiciary and the select committee, against the reforms as they stand except for the LSC and the DCA. We are now looking at four prospective judicial reviews of the unified contract and reforms; and a process so mismanaged that, in the words of the report:

237. There has been a catastrophic deterioration in the relationship between suppliers, their representative organisations, and the LSC. Unless the relationship improves, we do not see how implementation of these reforms can be successful. We urge all involved in legal aid reform to re-engage in a more constructive dialogue.

Now will the DCA/LSC take this seriously?

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

1 Comment

  1. Oliver Heald MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs

    This report confirms how reckless and ill-thought through the Government’s plans really are.

    Our network of high street solicitors will be damaged, leaving “advice deserts” with many vulnerable people unable to access justice close to home.

    The Select Committee point out that the Government has not even focussed its attention on the areas where legal aid costs are actually increasing.

    If the Government is determined to press ahead in the face of widespread concern from consumer champions and legal aid lawyers, they should at the very least adopt the Select Committee’s recommendation that the scheme should be piloted in order to assess its impact on the most vulnerable groups.

    Reply

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