Thursday 18 July 2013 by Catherine Baksi
Justice secretary Chris Grayling will be summoned to be appear before the House of Commons Justice Committee for a second time to examine the government's proposed cuts to legal aid, it was revealed today.
Publishing a report on the evidence it had heard on the Transforming Legal Aid consultation, the committee said: 'We intend to invite the lord chancellor to appear again before the committee to examine the government's overall response to its initial consultation, and the proposals which are included in its second consultation on the competitive tendering process, in autumn this year.'
The committee's paper reported the written and oral evidence it had received during its inquiry, without analysis or commentary.
On the scope of the second consultation, promised after the government's decision to reinstate client choice, the committee speculated that further changes might be on the agenda.
But it noted that the consultation would not cover the ending of legal aid for prison law cases, limiting legal aid for judicial review and the 12-month residency requirement (other than for babies under 12 months).
Written evidence to the committee revealed the degrees of preparedness of the two main legal regulators to grant the appropriate licences to enable different legal entities to be in position to bid for work under the new arrangements, following concern over the length of time this might take.
A letter sent by the chair of the SRA Board, Charles Plant, indicated that it would be prepared to fast-track alternative business structure applications from those looking to bid for new criminal contracts. He said applications from non-traditional law firms could be processed 'within three months' and those from traditional firms 'within one month'.
This was despite evidence submitted from the chair of the Legal Services Board David Edmonds that so far applications had taken an average of seven months to be granted following the submission of the second-stage application. Although Edmonds said he expected that the time would reduce as greater numbers of applicants are approved using the new simplified process.
The committee had written to Plant to seek clarification on its timetable for processing applications following 'numerous' representations from organisations and individuals concerned about the issue.
Plant said: 'Given the information we have available about the size of the current market, the planned exercise and the number of likely contract awards, we would not expect resources to be a constraint in dealing with approval applications.' He said the SRA had not yet received expressions of interest from potential ABSs specifically directed at the proposed exercise.
Meanwhile, the Bar Standards Board appeared to be behind schedule. It is currently seeking approval from the LSB to be a regulator of entities owned and managed by lawyers as well as of individual barristers. Its head of professional practice Ewen Macleod said: 'We hope that this can be achieved by the end of 2013 or early 2014 at the latest.'
He said that the BSB would need 'at least 3-6 months' to approve any new entities, 'possibly more' if it received a 'significant number of complex applications'.
Macleod said that the BS will also apply to the LSB for designation as a licensing authority for ABSs, but expected that process will take 'considerably longer' due to the statutory steps required, and suggested it would be done by the end of 2014.
'We may be able to answer more definitively in the near future, but there are significant risks in assuming that we could authorise entities by the deadline of June 2014,' he said.
He added that the BSB's intelligence is 'patchy' at the moment, but that it expects to receive 'a number' of applications from criminal practitioners to form entities.
The committee's report is now available.