The Commons Constitutional Affairs Committee today says it fears that if the proposed reforms to the Legal Aid system go ahead there is a serious risk for access to justice among the most vulnerable in society.
The Committee says the move to competitive tendering among firms for Legal Aid contracts must be properly piloted before it is implemented, and calls on Government to scrap the ?transitional period? of fixed fees, which is part of proposed radical reforms to the system of Legal Aid.
The proposed reforms are an attempt to stem the increase in the Legal Aid budget in recent years. Yet, the Committee says, the Government has failed to focus on areas where cost is actually increasing, namely Crown Court defence work and public law children cases. Other areas of expenditure are either stable or decreasing.
?It is clear that the Government has been unwise in attempting to reform the entire system rather than concentrating those areas which cause the problem.?
The Committee is ?extremely concerned? that Government will change the fees system ?on the basis of little or no evidence about which cost drivers have caused the problem? or how the reforms will actually affect the market of Legal Aid suppliers.
The proposed transitional fixed fee schemes, which would only be in place for a short period, is likely to lead to significant cuts in income for many Legal Aid lawyers and could prove to be unsustainable. The Committee says it should be halted.
No detailed plans for how the move to a ?market-based? approach of tendering for Legal Aid contracts will work have been made public. The Government?s plan is to involve fewer, larger firms to save money on administration of Legal Aid payments, but the Committee doubts the savings would justify the risks, and says there is no evidence that larger firms will provide more efficient or higher quality Legal Aid work.
The Committee is not satisfied that conditions exist in many areas for a genuine market to operate, or would exist by the time the second round of competition was held, and urges the Government to pilot its proposals in areas where there is a large supplier base, such as London. ?Bearing in mind the current fragility of the Legal Aid supplier base, it is imperative that the risks inherent in such a radical reform be minimised and the effects analysed on a limited geographical basis. Not to do so would be reckless.?
The Committee is especially concerned about the impact on black and minority ethnic firms. Last week the Society of Asian lawyers and the Black Solicitors Network jointly launched proceedings against the Government on the grounds that it has not been carried out a full racial impact assessment of the reform proposals.
Rt Hon Alan Beith MP, Chairman of the Committee, said:
?This is about people?s access to advice and to justice, which could be irreversibly damaged if these reforms have the negative effects described in evidence to the Committee. It is important that experienced professionals are prepared to stay in the field providing Legal Aid services for the most vulnerable members of society, such as individuals with mental health problems or children.?
?The risks inherent in these largely untested and unpiloted reform plans might be justified were the whole system in utter crisis but large parts of the Legal Aid system are stable in cost terms.
?The proposed timescales for such radical change are far too short, while the interim fixed fee transition period is risky and unhelpful. We are calling on Government to rethink the timing of the proposals and to properly pilot competitive tendering to get the evidence that the market-based approach to Legal Aid procurement works in practice.?