Legal Aid

Vera Baird addresses the CLSA

PUBLISHED November 4, 2006

Below is the text of the speech delivered to the Criminal Law Solicitors Association's annual conference by Vera Baird QC MP on the 4th November 2006: -

Good morning.

I am very, very pleased to be here, thank you for inviting me and you have chosen a lovely spot for your conference. 

Your theme for the day ? ?the role of the solicitor in improving the delivery of justice ? sends out a very clear message that solicitors see themselves as having a part to play in making the criminal justice system effective and efficient.  I think that is absolutely right.  Just as the police, prosecutors, courts, judges and magistrates have important roles to play, so to, of course, do defence solicitors.  The criminal justice system functions best when everyone understands each others roles and objectives. 

I want to cover three areas with you this morning:

  • our plans to deliver simple, speedy, summary Justice
  • our plans to reform the provision of legal services; and
  • where we have reached in reforming legal aid

 Delivering Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice

 I know that the Lord Chancellor spoke at your conference last year about his vision for a 21st century justice system.  In July we published what we call CJSSS ? ?Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice? setting out our vision in considerably more detail. 

Historically, we have already achieved much ? together ? over the last few years:

  • More offenders are being brought to justice
  • The number of ineffective trials has dropped and
  • Court orders are being more effectively enforced.

But there?s more to do if we are to meet concerns that still exist in communities up and down the country about the criminal justice system, as I know because of my role as a North East MP.

Our vision is a criminal justice system that is:

First, simple.  Dealing with suitable cases outside the court room where that is appropriate, perhaps by way of warnings, cautions or some other effective remedy to prevent reoffending?  This needs to happen in a transparent way so that communities can see that justice is being done.

Secondly it needs to be Speedy.  Dealing with cases that need the court process fairly, but promptly.  We need to eliminate the delays caused by wasted preliminary hearings.

And thirdly we want justice to be Summary.  A more proportionate response to different types of cases.  Again we need to ensure that the process is totally fair, but there are many offences that could be brought to court very much sooner after charge than they currently come.

How will we turn those aspirations into real improvement.  And how can solicitors play a part?

We have streamlining pilots underway in Coventry, West Cumbria, Thames and Camberwell, and have identified three key ways we can make improvements to reduce waste and delays.  First of all we are working with the judiciary to:

  • Extend robust case management supported by case progression officers;
  • Second, we are trying hard to change the culture - so that orders are complied with at the right time.  Every time;
  • And we want to reduce the number of adjournments.  The expectation should be that cases will proceed on the first day they are listed ? that prosecution and defence will be prepared and ready.

Results from these 4 pilots are extremely encouraging. We are seeing a dramatic 78% fall in the level of adjournments.  A significant fall in the level of pre-trial reviews. A 30% increase in early guilty pleas.  We are also seeking far earlier trial dates within 6 to 8 weeks. 

We want to see cases dealt with much more quickly.  Particularly low level crime and the types of offences that affect the quality of life within ordinary communities.  The confidence of the community in the criminal justice system can only be enhanced if people see minor crime being dealt with very promptly.  The pilots have shown that this can be done predominantly through inter-agency co-operation and engagement with the defence. It shows that if solicitors have timely information upon which to advise their clients they will ensure that the case proceeds effectively.

Similarly in the Crown Court we are working with the judiciary to reduce delay and ensure that unnecessary pre-trial hearings are cut back.

As much as there is a role for solicitors in delivering all of those changes.  There is a further one.  It is in helping us to shape the future as we design new processes and ways of working to achieve Simple, Speedy, Summary Justice.

Community Justice

You will be aware, I think, of the Community Justice initiatives that are taking place in North Liverpool and in Salford and now in Warwickshire. Some of you may have represented clients at those courts.  The core objectives of the community justice programme are:

  • make the court and the CJS responsive to the needs of the local community; 
  • It is to break the cycle of re-offending, partly by involving a wide range of agencies in solving problems;
  • And it is to ensure that defendants comply with court orders and penalties so that the community around can see that problems are being tackled.

We want to build on the success of those initiatives to extend community justice to other parts of England and Wales.  We will identify a further 10 local authority areas potentially most suitable to extend community justice and we will of course take into account the levels of crime, social exclusion, diversity and confidence.

Alternatives to Court

We are also engaging with all our stakeholders to look at ways to remove low level crime from the court process, while still dealing with such crime in a proportionate, fair and transparent way. 

Though any alternatives to court must not decrease public confidence that crime is being dealt with appropriately.  Anti-Social Behaviour Orders and conditional cautions are two initiatives that are already successfully diverting cases from the courts.  

Means Testing

One final aspect of the CJS that I want to talk about is legal aid means testing, which we introduced in October in the magistrates? courts.  The principle that those who can pay for their legal representation, should do so, is right. 

I am pleased that in many areas solicitors and courts are working hard to ensure the new system is successfully implemented.  

However, I know that in certain areas, solicitors are not prepared to act until a representation order is in place, because of fears about not being paid for time spent advising if an order is not ultimately granted.  I am concerned that this may leave some vulnerable clients without the representation they need, which is not in their best interests, risking delay and risking disruption to the wider CJS.

I have always made clear that the new means testing scheme would be kept under close review. I have listened very carefully to representations from all over the country. Where we have heard valid complaints ? small and large ? we have reacted. For example we have relaxed the requirements for the provision of national insurance numbers and we have taken issues up that solicitors have raised with HMCS and we will continue to do so.

You have raised a number of issues about the application forms and the application process. I have asked for both to be reviewed as a matter of complete urgency.

But there will be complete consultation with solicitors and court staff, with a view to simplifying as far as we can and picking up the detailed concerns you have raised.

It is to the benefit of everyone that where a case can appropriately be dealt with at first hearing, that it is disposed of in that way. It was obvious to us at the start that the means test will take time to
complete, which is why we instituted early cover, a way we hoped would ensure that there was the earliest possible preparation.

But it has been strongly argued, and I understand entirely, that it is unrealistic to expect a client to submit a completed form within 2 working days of charge. Sometimes the solicitor does not meet the client until the day of the first hearing, and sometimes the charge sheet is not available until then. 

I am prepared to consider options for changes to the Early Cover scheme if that helps. For example, would it be helpful if time could run simply from first instruction?   We need to work with you to work out precisely how this should be structured. Officials from LSC and DCA are meeting the stakeholder group next week to discuss the issues.  I see the LSC once a week as well as getting direct representations, which I pass on to the LSC.

I have also heard concerns about clients eligible for legal aid but are refused because forms contain technical errors, which you cannot correct before the case is out of time. We obviously must consider arrangements to ensure that cases do not go unpaid on technicalities and make changes with consultation as soon as we can.

I hope we can continue to work together to ensure successful implementation, which Parliament approved entirely and does reflect the community at large.

Legal Services Reform

I want to turn now to the draft Legal Services Bill which is truly independent and puts consumers first.

It needs to be clear where ultimate responsibility lies for ensuring effective competition, and for protecting consumers, we need to end the regulatory maze.  It creates a regulator, the Legal Services Board - a strong and independent body, overseeing the whole of the legal services sector. Not replacing regulators like the Law Society, but working with them in setting standards and ensuring power to take tough action if those standards are breached.

These changes will increase consumer confidence, making sure that the regulation of the legal profession is not only transparent, but is seen to be transparent. 

It?s obviously important that regulation is carried out separately from representation.  There can be no vested interest in governing the legal sector ? it must be in all our interests

So we are also setting up a new independent Office for Legal Complaints to ensure their complaints, those of the public, will be handled independently, impartially and effectively.

The draft Bill also contains proposals which will allow law firms to operate in new ways in how they structure their businesses and provide their services to their customers.  Different types of lawyers and non-lawyers will be able to work together on an equal footing, in a partnership, a limited liability partnership or in a corporate ? or any other structure ? that the regulators deem to be appropriate.

Firms will have access to external investment, allowing them to take advantage of new technologies and develop the scale and scope of their business but at the same time we will be able to spread and share risk. 

Now changes must not expose consumers to new risks, nor should changes designed to assist the profession risk compromise its long established values of independence and maintenance of the rule of law. 

Legal aid and Lord Carter?s review

Finally, let me mention legal aid, although briefly as you have heard from Lord Carter.   We will publish our response to the consultation in a few weeks time. 

As you know I spent my summer travelling up and down England and Wales to meet as many practitioners as possible to ensure that practitioners were given an opportunity to shape the way in this process.

The Lord Chancellor?s recent announcement that we will look again at fees again in family work is correct but it has been misinterpreted by some that the Carter reforms are not going ahead.  Let me be crystal clear today.  The Lord Chancellor and I both remain committed to introducing fixed and graduated fees for both criminal and civil work and at the appropriate time, competition.

The future of publicly funded legal services is important if we are to maintain a high quality system that is the most respected in the world.   But by far and away currently the most expensive system in the world.

Whole system reform is needed to deliver a system that is:

  • Fair for defendants
  • Fair for the public, both as users of legal services and as taxpayers, and
  • Fair for practitioners.
Quality of legal aid supplier market

Let me just mention one further thing, Lord Carter, the Lord Chancellor and I all made clear that quality is vital if the public is to have confidence in publicly funded legal services.  Quality will not be an empty phrase, we will, with your help, deliver quality.

Sustainable system which is fair for all

We intend to implement proposals that will deliver a sustainable procurement system for legal aid, which achieves maximum value for money and control, while still maintaining quality and fairness in the criminal justice system.  Change is not desirable.  It is inevitable if we are to ensure the survival of publicly funded legal advice and representation, which will contribute and continue to contribute, to a fair and decent society.  We, and I hope you, are committed to making that change.