Legal Aid

Solicitors accuse MoJ of ?wilful blindness?

PUBLISHED June 30, 2007

Solicitors condemned the ?wilful blindness? of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) this week in refusing to acknowledge the severe threat its reforms pose to the legal aid system, after the government shrugged off damning criticisms from a cross-party committee of MPs and announced its intention to press ahead with the controversial plans.

In May, the constitutional affairs select committee (CASC) branded proposals to introduce fixed fees and competitive tendering across the whole legal aid system as ?ill-thought-out? and a ?breathtaking risk? due to the fragility of the supplier base and lack of analysis of the likely impact (see [2007] Gazette, 3 May, 1).

Responding to the CASC report this week, the government said it was conscious of the risks in the procurement programme, but did not agree with the MPs? assessment of them. It said it had moderated the speed of introduction of most fee schemes in response to practitioners? requests. The government also did not accept the committee?s suggestion that the schemes had been rushed or introduced in an atmosphere of panic, and said work to implement them would continue.

Lord Falconer, the Lord Chancellor, insisted the reforms were necessary to ensure as many people as possible were helped within the resources available, and were designed to encourage efficiency, quality and good practice.

CASC chairman Alan Beith MP said the government still failed to recognise the ?fundamental flaws? in its plans, adding that he would be seeking a parliamentary debate on the issue as soon as possible.

Andrew Holroyd, Law Society Deputy Vice-President, said: ?The government is sticking its head in the sand, ignoring warnings from MPs, leading social welfare charities, legal aid lawyers and even its own economic research about the extreme fragility of the sector and the threat to access to justice.?

He applauded the committee for pressing for proper democratic scrutiny of the reforms and urging the government to take more time to devise a realistic plan. Richard Miller, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said: ?Repeatedly saying that they want to help more people and maintain high standards will not make it so. The MoJ is guilty of wilful blindness to the evidence of the likely impact.?

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) has meanwhile launched another raft of consultations. It announced a further consultation on duty solicitor slot allocation for police station and magistrates? court work, a joint consultation with the MoJ on a proposed quality assurance scheme for publicly funded criminal advocates in the Crown Court, and two short consultations on fees for mental health work and proposals to introduce a graduated fee scheme for litigators undertaking Crown Court work.

In addition, the LSC published the final fixed-fee schemes for family, family mediation, mental health and police station work, together with changes to the funding code for child care proceedings.

These met a mixed response from practitioners. Mr Miller and Resolution both said that while they still had concerns, the proposals to phase in the family fees would avoid a ?meltdown? in October.

Richard Charlton, chairman of the Mental Health Lawyers Association, said mental health work could not be done for the proposed figures and vulnerable people would be left unrepresented, which could put the UK in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.