Monday 20 May 2013 by Catherine Baksi
The justice secretary has asked the Law Society and Bar Council to develop a quality standard for firms bidding for criminal legal aid contracts under controversial plans for price-competitive tendering (PCT).
In an exclusive interview with the Gazette, Chris Grayling said: 'I have invited both the Bar Council and the Law Society to work together to provide a quality assessment for me.' If they are unable to do that, he said a process of peer review will be used.
Solicitors and barristers have united in their opposition to the proposed scheme, which they warn is 'unworkable' and 'potentially unlawful'. In a show of solidarity, the Law Society and Bar Council last week issued a statement on four key aspects of the proposals that they jointly oppose.
Quality has been a key concern, as the minimum 17.5% fee cut, combined with other proposals including the removal of client choice, has aroused fears that the standard of representation will fall to an unacceptably low level.
The profession is staging a demonstration opposite the Palace of Westminster at 10.30am on Wednesday. Later, more than 1,000 solicitors and barristers will leave courts and police stations with emergency cover only to attend an afternoon meeting dubbed 'Justice for Sale'.
The protest will be fronted by Dave Rowntree (pictured), drummer with pop band Blur, who is now a solicitor at Kingsley Napley. It will hear from speakers including Gerry Conlon, wrongly imprisoned for 15 years as one of the 'Guildford Four'.
Despite mounting opposition to the plans, Grayling confirmed to the Gazette that in the absence of a 'stunning alternative', PCT will go ahead in some form.
He dismissed as 'scare stories' concerns that companies with Ministry of Justice contracts, such as Serco and G4S, could become legal aid providers and representatives of the same offenders they hold in custody.
Serco, G4S and Capita all told the Gazette that they had not applied for a licence to enter the legal services market by becoming an alternative business structure. None said they plan to bid for a criminal contract.
Last week Grayling met 30 criminal lawyers to hear their concerns. He will meet representatives of local law societies tonight.
Concern over the plans is extending beyond the legal profession. An early day motion signed by 56 MPs 'deplores' the plans which 'will reduce the quality of representation to the lowest standard possible'.
The House of Commons Justice Committee has indicated that it is 'likely' to hold an inquiry into the proposals once the government's consultation closes on 4 June.
Meanwhile, the Law Society has extended the deadline for responses to a survey on firms' current financial health and the impact of the proposed fee cuts. The survey, carried out by Otterburn Consulting, will run until 27 May. Take the survey at tinyurl.com/c4eaq5o.