Angela Campbell, President of the LCCSA, said:
"At present when legal aid solicitors are paid less than plumbers and other skilled people, the idea of introducing competitive tendering is ill-conceived, premature, and potentially disastrous. This proposed approach will result in forcing small, local high street solicitors out of business and the general public will suffer as a result. It will reduce the quality of service to local communities not just in criminal aid but also civil aid. We will resist these proposals with every means available."
The purpose of the consultation is to introduce Price Competitive Tendering (PCT) for publicly funded (legal aid) criminal defence service in London. The LSC intend that all of London be a "pilot" area and that PCT then be "rolled out" to other cities throughout England and Wales.
PCT is simply a method of cutting legal aid rates even further and forcing firms out of business. Price will be the determining factor in the amount of contracts. Only the cheapest firms will survive. In consequence there will be a reduction in quality of services provided and consumer choice.
PCT for criminal defence services is untried and untested. It is folly to "pilot" it across all of Greater London. Should the pilot fail the consequences will already have been irreversible.
The points we would like to highlight are as follows: -
? The LSC has already been responsible for the gross mismanagement of Legal Aid Lawyers and as a result of these new measures is about to carry that irresponsibility out into the communities we serve.
The current proposals will lead to a system that will reduce the number of legal aid practitioners and lead to a service that will be unable to cope with the demand of the public many of whom are already subjected to social exclusion within the current system.
The LSC acknowledge that Legal Aid Lawyers provide front line, low cost, high quality services for millions of people, many of whom face great difficulty, homelessness, mental breakdown and the break up of their families. We build relationships with communities on a long term basis.
Competitive tendering will drive down the quality of services available to the disadvantaged within our society and provides no assurances as regard their right to be represented by a lawyer of their choice as firms will be asked to bid for a percentage of the work within their area/zone thus ultimately reducing the number of lawyers.
The scheme is a prelude to the destruction of local high street firms and the independence of the solicitor's profession.
? Competitive tendering is simply a method of cutting Legal Aid rates even further and forcing firms out of business.
This is demonstrated by the criteria of quality and price per case being used by the LSC to assess whether a firm should provide police station and magistrates' court work. It takes no account of the many small firms that exist which provide specialist/niche services for ethnic minorities and those disadvantaged within our communities.
? The LSC have no idea of the impact on the provision of Civil Legal Aid. This does not even feature in their risk assessment.
Competitive tendering did not work for the provision of civil legal aid services and just resulted in many good quality and cost efficient firms being driven out of the market place and the public being left unable to find lawyers to conduct their cases. The LSC now have approached lawyers offering them the ability to start new cases when previously they would have had to bid for the same. The LSC are simply repeating what they know to be a failed experiment but the results will be catastrophic and irreversible.
? The LSC have chosen the largest, most complex and diverse area in the country, London, to Pilot a bizarre scheme.
In the event, and it is very likely, that the Pilot is not workable it will mean a large number of lawyers who currently conduct publicly funded work will be lost from the system and newly qualified lawyers are not being attracted to legal aid work due to the constantly changing environment, the unpredictability of income and long working hours.
More importantly, high street solicitors are embedded in a rich network of client relationships; our clients are often 'socially excluded'. By personal contact we reconnect people to justice. Reorganising our service by reference to lowest price is akin to the slash and burn of the rainforests. The loss of our social ecology you can add to free milk, NHS dentists and local Post Offices. The ultimate impact of the Pilot will be adding to social exclusion.
The proposals are premature because the LSC and Government are aware that whilst legal aid rates for solicitors have not risen for many years, the overall expenditure has increased. Increased expenditure has been the natural consequence of government policy, which continues to create more new criminal offences and proposes to increase the number of cases "brought to justice" year on year. Criminal investigations have become increasingly sophisticated and well resourced. Government has acknowledged the impact of these cost drivers and as a consequence has launched a still ongoing Fundamental Legal Aid Review (FLAR) which is yet to report its findings.
If expenditure on defence services is allowed to fall behind we will not have a criminal justice system, which is balanced and fair to both sides.