Lord Carter published an interim report, Procurement of Criminal Defence Services: Market Based Reform on 9 February.
It's described as a move toward a ?sustainable market-based procurement system to help create a quality defence service that rewards the most efficient suppliers, providing clients with appropriate choice and bringing greater predictability to cost.?
Legal aid is in crisis and needs reform. The Law Society welcomed the Carter review, engaging with it from the outset to fully represent practitioners' interests in the future procurement of legal services. We've had the support of the CLSA , LCCSA and LAPG in our web-based campaign to defend legal aid. Read the background
Much work is still needed to refine the impact of each proposal before the final report in May. The Society's engagement will include resistance to any proposals we believe are against the best interests of clients and the dedicated practitioners who serve them. We seek empirical evidence in support of all proposals.
Redistributing the budget
It will be extremely damaging if the final recommendations don't redistribute savings from criminal cases. In a letter to the Lord Chancellor , we welcomed Lord Carter's declared aim to redistribute the disproportionate spending on defending high cost criminal cases.
The Government acknowledges that the failure to ring fence the civil budget in the past means increasingly large and expensive criminal cases have created legal aid 'deserts', with legally-aided advice sparse or non-existent in some parts of the country. We were told any redistribution would allow a more flexible structure for the legal aid budget, providing more civil help and advice to the needy.
Focus on civil legal aid
The Law Society waits for the Carter Review to turn its attention to civil legal aid. Imposing a 'one size fits all' model in civil legal aid would be even more impracticable than in criminal legal aid, because the system is complex, with justiciable problems resolved in a number of different forums, such as courts and tribunals.
Show us the research
We are expecting to see the results of research conducted on behalf of the Carter Review into the efficiency of practitioners in the near future. Firms gave their time generously and helped the Carter team understand the cost drivers. The Law Society undertook a parallel assessment of quality to ensure this was factored in. We can properly assess the implications of Lord Carter's interim report if we see the research.
The market approach
The Law Society recognises a market approach can play a role in any new structure, but we're not convinced it would be appropriate in all circumstances, nor in some geographical areas. The Carter review must ensure the current supplier base remains viable and sustainable by attracting new lawyers into legal aid. In particular, any proposals must preserve the diversity of the supplier base. This will ensure minority communities often served by small firms and those operated by black and minority ethnic solicitors continue to receive a service meeting their needs. The Law Society remains opposed to price competitive tendering.
While suggesting a move towards competition, the report recommends the reforms be introduced over three years, to give criminal defence service supplier time to adjust. We argue that contracts be awarded for a sufficient duration to allow for proper business planning.
Preferred supplier scheme
We await the Legal Services Commission's consultation on a preferred supplier scheme; it's inextricably link to the Carter Review. This scheme ought to provide key indicators on the future of legal aid procurement, not least what might be expected in terms of minimum contract size.
Consortia of suppliers
Lord Carter's interim report tells us that consortia of suppliers could work in partnership as single contractors, in addition to large individual suppliers. This presumes that the consortia model would work. The idea remains untested and preliminary feedback from firms raises many very significant obstacles.