?Tinkering? Falconer rules out extra cash

PUBLISHED July 14, 2005

Get Carter ? as the fundamental legal aid review spawns yet another review, Paula Rohan hears calls for action

Legal aid solicitors have been holding their breath for almost a year and a half for the results of the government?s fundamental legal aid review, which were finally revealed last week ? but ultimately, the wait is still not over.

Launching the report A Fairer Deal for Legal Aid, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, announced a further study aimed at looking into ways of addressing problems raised in the review.

The new study is due early next year and will be headed by Lord Carter of Coles, who has led previous reviews involving the likes of the Criminal Records Bureau.

The Carter review will be focused mainly on the increasing costs of criminal legal aid. Speaking to journalists last week, Lord Falconer said: ?Over the last seven years we have been tinkering to meet the demands, never facing up to the huge problem of the rising costs of criminal legal aid.?

In a letter to the Law Society that emerged shortly after the review was launched, he announced a series of immediate measures focused on the specific problem of very high-cost cases.

Lord Carter has, meanwhile, been charged with the wider job of looking into how ?modern procurement methods? can be used to cut the crime budget with the aim of redistributing funds to the civil side ? including the idea that block contracts could be channelled through fewer firms. Tendering on a basis of price is likely to be rolled outside of London and beyond the lower courts if Lord Carter gives it the nod. The management of larger and more complex cases such as murder and fraud will also come under the microscope, amid concerns that a mere 13 cases last year cost a combined ?48 million.

However, the Community Legal Service (CLS) will not remain immune from changes. The future will see the creation of community legal advice centres (CLACs) in advice hot spots, as well as the expansion of telephone advice lines such as CLS Direct. There will also be a review of childcare proceedings with a view to cutting delays.

But one thing there will not be, Lord Falconer made it abundantly clear, is new money for the legal aid pot. Perhaps surprisingly in light of this, the reaction from solicitors? representative groups and other organisations has been fairly positive.

The Criminal Law Solicitors Association sounds optimistic. ?We have been looking for a full-scale review which produces a clear and fair path for the future provision of access to justice,? says chairwoman Helen Cousins.

?This review will provide a real opportunity to work towards a strategic approach rather than the short-term sticking plaster measures we have seen so often.?

Legal Aid Practitioners Group director Richard Miller says: ?We agree that the reasons for the increasing costs in the most expensive criminal cases must be addressed. We are also happy to resume our discussions with the government looking at different procurement methods, and look forward to working with Lord Carter in his review.?

The Law Society has also backed the review, although along with others it has concerns about competitive tendering and overall lack of funding. ?While the Law Society continues to argue that the legal aid system requires further investment to ensure true access to justice, it also makes sense to make more resources available for civil legal aid by tackling waste in the criminal justice system,? says chief executive Janet Paraskeva.

However, all groups also stress that if the lawyers are prepared to be realistic, then the government should reciprocate ? it needs to recognise that there is a crisis in legal aid that is not caused by lawyers but by external policies such as those introduced by the Home Office on crime and asylum.

?Justice is indivisible,? argues David Harker, chief executive of charity Citizens Advice. ?Public funding for both the criminal and civil justice systems needs to work as a whole, and be supported by effective advice and prevention strategies.?

They are all hoping that Lord Carter might be able to persuade the government that the system cannot be made better without more money. Mr Miller says: ?It is impossible to see how anything apart from new money right now will enable the system to continue until such time as these new initiatives bear fruit.?

The most vociferous response comes from bar chairman Guy Mansfield QC, who complains about rates of pay that have been frozen for eight years for trials that last up to ten days. ?The failure to make immediate provision for these cases is unjust and hits young barristers hardest,? he warns.

The bar has recently had a better track record than solicitors for making the government back down on pay issues. Lord Falconer conceded that perhaps some lawyers were underpaid because of anomalies in the system. ?I think they will agree [that the system is not perfect],? he mused at last week?s press conference. ?But whether they agree with the detail [of the proposed solutions], I am not sure.?

The Legal Services Commission, which often bears the brunt of lawyers? disgruntlement over government policies, is hopeful that the review will make everyone?s lives easier. ?We look forward to working with Lord Carter and his team, who will carry out the review of legal aid purchasing.

Both barristers and solicitors ? particularly in the crime field ? now face at least another six months of uncertainty and, although they may be relieved they have another bite of the negotiation cherry through Lord Carter, many feel that the detail Lord Falconer refers to must emerge sooner rather than later for the sake of their clients and their business plans. Or, as Mr Harker puts it: ?Less review, more action.?