Up to 75% of criminal legal aid firms will be removed from the market under far-reaching reforms set to be implemented from summer 2011. The Ministry of Justice has announced new proposals for the tendering of criminal legal aid services with the aim of delivering significant savings to taxpayers and a more sustainable future for the legal aid budget. It is claimed that the proposed new tendering process would also lead to greater efficiencies for suppliers enabling them to be profitable and sustainable, whilst ensuring that legal aid is available to those most in need.
The proposals would see the criminal legal aid market restructured so that there are a smaller number of large contracts contracted across a Criminal Justice Area, with multiple contracts let in each CJS area. In future there are likely to be no more than eight to ten contracts per CJS area. Arguments are advanced for moving quickly towards a consolidated market that will enable firms to remain viable through access to greater volumes of work. Individuals would continue to have a choice of legal representatives from among the pool of providers who hold contracts. Under the proposed model, contracts would be let for the full range of criminal defence work from the police station through to the Crown Court, with cases followed through to their conclusion. All contracts would include a share of police station and magistratesâ€™ court duty work. The claim is that contract holders would therefore have greater access to the higher value, more profitable work, including the ability to undertake Very High Cost Cases.
In an interview with the â€˜Law Gazetteâ€™, legal aid minister Lord Bach said: â€œThese proposals are likely to affect a large number of small and medium-sized firms, but the current arrangements are unsustainable. Solicitors have been telling us for some time that the amount they get from legal aid is not enough to keep them profitable. These plans will generate greater efficiencies for suppliers, help people access good advice, and get a better deal for the taxpayer.â€ He estimated that no more than 500 firms will get contracts, which would mean that up to 75% of the 1,700 firms doing criminal legal aid work face an exit from the market. At the launch of the proposals Jack Straw said: â€œWe have a duty to ensure that the legal aid budget is used effectively and efficiently on behalf of the taxpayer. Even with the necessary savings and reforms, our system of legal aid â€“ civil and criminal â€“ will still be far and away the best funded in the world.â€
Responding to the new proposals, Law Society President Robert Heslett said: “We have long argued that the current situation is not sustainable in the medium to long term. We agree with the Ministry that reform is needed”. But he added: “The model proposed by the Ministry bears little resemblance to the market as it is currently structured, and it is not clear how, nor how quickly any move to such a model could be implemented without causing serious disruption to service provision. We do not have an economic environment in which firms will find it easy to make the necessary investment to expand as much as would be required.”
The full text of the MoJ report â€œRestructuring the delivery of criminal defence servicesâ€ can be found at: