Legal Aid

Danger alert over legal aid auction

PUBLISHED April 28, 2013

Last week the Sunday Express told how Justice Secretary Chris Grayling?s Transforming Legal Aid Bill could see more than 1,500 High Street solicitors close their doors for ever.

Contracts for criminal defence work would be auctioned off to bulk legal service providers, including companies like G4S and Tesco.

The Ministry of Justice?s own impact ?assessment of the proposals warns: "?Removal of choice may reduce the extent to which firms offer services above acceptable ?levels.?

Intended to cut £220million off the £2billion legal aid budget, the Bill would give successful bidders in every region fixed three-year contracts to take on criminal legal aid work.

Instead of being able to choose a solicitor, anyone facing a criminal trial would have a solicitor assigned to them.

They would be paid a single fee for a whole case, whether or not a suspect pleads guilty, leading some critics to warn that there would be little incentive to ?defend or prosecute a case properly. The Conservatives have come under fire over the proposals because they promised to abandon plans to auction legal aid ?contracts while in opposition in 2009.

Then shadow Justice Secretary ?Dominic Grieve said: "We really should be concerned about the lasting damage that could be done if we get this wrong.?

Criminal solicitors and barristers are uniting to combat the measures.

Michael Turner QC, head of the Criminal Bar Association, said: "Beginning ?tomorrow, I will be meeting a number of solicitor organisations with a view to ?jointly resist these disastrous proposals.

"I have never before seen such a level of genuine concern and anger at the threat to one of the finest legal systems in the world. Mr Grayling claims he wants to make London the capital of civil litigation, where Russians will come to settle lucrative libel or divorce cases but the Commercial Bar have told me it is Britain?s reputation in the criminal courts that draws people from around the world to this country. We are known to be fair and just. If these proposals go through, that reputation will die.?

Both Ukip and the Labour Party have condemned the Government?s proposals.

Michael Greaves, a policy adviser for Ukip and a barrister at the Hague, said: "These proposals are dangerous and we oppose them. The problem with tendering is that companies are going to start working out the most cost-effective way to get as much money as possible for as little work as possible.

"In addition, one-case-one-fee proposals may make it attractive to crack a case as quickly as possible by getting a guilty plea, and the fee, without the professionalism and checks we have today.?

John Mann, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: "The problem with this plan is that it will reduce competition and every time you reduce competition, you force the real price up, not down. The people who will suffer are those who are innocent.?

The Justice Secretary added: "We will continue to uphold everyone's right to a fair trial - quality assured duty solicitors and lawyers will still be available just as they are now - but that doesn't mean we shouldn't look again at how the system which provides this is operated and deliver better value for the £1 billion of taxpayers' money spent on criminal legal aid a year. 

"At a time when businesses across the country have to adapt to a very difficult financial climate the legal sector cannot be immune.?