Members may be forgiven for feeling a sense of déj? vu when I report that the Legal Services Commission and Ministry of Justice are now focusing on price competitive tendering in their future policy work on criminal legal aid. Lessons, it seems, may not have been learned from past efforts to explore the applicability of PCT/best value tendering to a complex market such as criminal defence. The LCCSA has again pointed out the fatal flaws in the concept and its potentially devastating effect on the quality and sustainability of the provision of legal services. We shall continue to do so.
Of course, no one could live in the UK and fail to realise that the economy requires that savings be made. But savings have already been made in the criminal justice system and there has been a reduction in the volume of cases to an extent which obviates the need for a dangerous experiment such as PCT. The substantial cuts imposed thus far leave no room for further reductions without damaging the availability of legal services in this area. The government says these savings are not enough and that more will be required ? but won?t say how much. It would surely be helpful to quantify what has already been saved.
The recent damning Justice Select Committee report into the tendering of court interpreter services highlights what can go wrong. The Committee listed "inadequate understanding of the needs of the courts, failure to heed warnings from the professionals concerned and insufficient safeguards in place to prevent interruptions in the provision of quality?.
The volume of cases being sent to court may be reduced further following the launch of the new "proportionality test? by the DPP. We have always promoted a sensible approach to charging decisions and consideration of alternative disposals; but great care must be taken to get the balance right in the interests of justice. The public will be concerned by recent reports which suggest that the police have issued cautions for serious offences; and many unrepresented suspects may be tempted to accept a caution as a quick way of dealing with an allegation they deny, not being aware of the long-term consequences for future career prospects, in the age of the CRB check.
Members will have noted that implementation of QASA has been put back to September. Originally due to start in April 2012, then postponed to January 2013, the revised timetable provides an opportunity, it is said, to resolve some of the final details following the response to the fourth consultation.
From the outset, the LCCSA questioned the need for this scheme and has sought to ensure that the concerns of our members are taken into account, in particular the importance of non-trial advocates, solicitors in the youth court and concerns regarding judicial evaluation.
Whilst a level playing field is being sought in respect of QASA, there is less parity between the branches of the profession when it comes to what is required to qualify as a duty solicitor. The LCCSA continues to highlight this anomaly, which is being rectified.
Other issues which have concerned members and which I am continuing to bring to the attention of policy makers include the frustrating inconsistency of the approach adopted by prisons to allowing the use of laptops and tablets. There are also difficulties with videolink access.
There has been some progress in the field of digital working, with free wi-fi to be piloted at certain courts. Electronic legal aid submissions will be piloted in some areas but will not be mandatory.
We still await feedback on the "flexible courts? pilots.
The recent publicity over the legal aid costs of defending Asil Nadir underscored the need for a review of the decision to remove the ability for defendants to pay legal costs from restrained funds. The LCCSA will continue to push for this.
Amendments to the criminal contract were proposed and I wrote to the Legal Services Commission, requesting that we should be consulted on such a fundamental issue for our members. Happily, the LSC have dropped the proposals.
I thank Melanie Stooks, for launching our new ? and already popular ? webinar programme. Who would have thought that, for about £75 a year, you could obtain 16 hours of CPD from the best speakers/tutors and access this when it suited you? The multi-member discount is now available to new members and provides fantastic value. I hope our membership will continue to build at a time when our voice must be heard.