Carter?s balancing act

PUBLISHED February 2, 2006

Janet Paraskeva hopes that the Carter review of legal aid procurement will result in a fair deal for practitioners and prove to be a catalyst for lasting improvements

Lord Carter is set to unveil his proposals to improve the way that criminal legal aid services are provided and procured within the next few weeks, subject to how his negotiations proceed with all key parties. It is then expected that he will outline his plans for reforming civil legal aid before the end of April.

The Law Society has co-operated fully with Lord Carter and his team during the course of his review because we believe it provides the profession with an excellent opportunity to create an effective and sustainable legal aid framework.

We earnestly hope Lord Carter?s proposals will prove to be influential in securing the long-term future of legal aid, to ensure the best advice and value for taxpayers? money with a sustainable procurement regime that guarantees good quality, allows efficient providers to grow and prosper, and maintains the diversity of the profession.

As part of this, we will work with Lord Carter in the hope that we can achieve a route map for change, which proceeds on a timetable that enables current providers to adapt effectively to the new environment.

Over the course of the review, we have emphasised the wealth of talent and commitment of legal aid solicitors. We have also been impressed by Lord Carter?s appreciation of this and his personal commitment to producing a report that will provide for the long-term viability of the legal aid system.

We must not underestimate the size of the task facing Lord Carter, and how critical it is that he gets it right. The government has made it clear there is no new money in the short term; the next spending round will not be agreed until 2007/08. This means Lord Carter must perform a delicate balancing act within the existing budget.

Pressure on the criminal legal aid budget has had a devastating impact on civil legal aid. The reduction in spending on civil legal aid has left some of the most vulnerable people in society unable to access legal aid advice to alleviate their problems.

We are taking every opportunity to persuade the government that expenditure on civil legal aid at an early stage can prevent clusters of social problems developing, with overall savings for the public purse. There is some recent evidence that this ?invest to save? message is getting through; the Legal Services Commission?s recently published strategy for the Community Legal Service is a good example.

Worryingly, the present system is failing to attract and retain solicitors. Any new arrangements arising from the Carter review must have the spin-off effect of convincing newly qualified solicitors that publicly funded work provides a viable and secure career path. The government must tackle the serious decline in take-up of legal aid as a career and avoid the kind of human resource problems that have bedevilled the health and education sectors.

Reflecting the urgency to develop a more effective system of procuring legal aid, Lord Carter has been set an extremely tight timeframe to develop his proposals. Nonetheless, there are a number of fundamental issues at stake. Far too much of the legal aid budget is currently swallowed by a few, very long criminal cases. There is general agreement that efficiencies can be achieved in this area, freeing money to be redistributed more fairly throughout the rest of the system.

Legal aid providers have no difficulty in accepting that they must be able to demonstrate provision of a good-quality service that is procured with an eye to value for taxpayers? money. However, the future viability of legal aid also hinges critically on a fair deal for legal aid practitioners, and many are justified in their belief that this is not what they have enjoyed over the past decade. Our hope is that the Carter review will pave the way for that fairer deal and signal an end to elements of the current system outside of solicitors? control, afflicted by waste and unnecessary bureaucracy.

But Lord Carter?s review does not extend beyond the procurement of legal aid services. For example, it does not address other areas of the criminal justice system that impact so heavily on the work of defence solicitors. The late arrival of prisoners to court, prosecution evidence being disclosed at a late stage and ineffective court listing contribute to unnecessary costs and hinder the work of defence solicitors. Although outside the remit of the Carter review, we hope Lord Carter will take the opportunity to comment on the need for reform of other parts of the justice system, which we know the government is keen to consider. Politicians must also get much better at predicting and budgeting for the effect that new criminal justice policies will have on the legal aid budget.

His recommendations may present challenging business decisions for many practitioners. However, we hope Lord Carter?s review will pave the way for longer-term security and fresh opportunities with appeal not only to those already working in the system, but critically to individuals considering careers in publicly funded work.

The common wish of everyone working in the legal aid system is that Lord Carter?s review will prove to be the catalyst for lasting improvements. The Law Society has taken every opportunity to shape the outcome of the review and to ensure that the timetable for implementation is such as to enable the present, dedicated and diverse corps of legal aid practitioners to make the necessary changes and deliver a sustainable future for legal aid.

Janet Paraskeva is the Law Society chief executive