Hard on the heels of the National Audit Office’s highly critical report to Parliament on the procurement of Criminal Legal Aid in England and Wales comes the Public Accounts Committee’s savaging of the Legal Services Commission, the body charged with administering the programme.
The Legal Services Commission (LSC) spends £2.1 billion a year on buying civil and criminal legal aid, mainly from solicitors and barristers, and a further £125 million on administration. While accepting that the Commission has successfully arrested the increase in legal aid spending in the last five years, the PAC nevertheless found it to be an organisation with poor financial management and internal controls and
deficient management information. These weaknesses resulted in the Commission having its annual accounts qualified for 2008â€“09 and an assessment that its procurement and administration of criminal legal aid posed risks to value for money.
The Committee was very concerned that such weaknesses in the Commissionâ€™s
performance had occurred when the Ministry of Justice spends over Â£2 million a year itself on legal aid policy matters and on overseeing the Commission. In the words of the report: â€œWe found confusion and uncertainty about the respective roles of the two organisations which had led to duplication of effort on some issues and a lack of clarity about who should be responsible for others. Because the Commission is the sole buyer of legal aid, it is important that it knows it is paying the right price for this and the effects its policies are having on the sustainability of providers. But it does not know enough about the costs and profitability of firms to know if it has set its fees at an appropriate levelâ€.
The gaps the Committee found in the arrangements to assure the quality of criminal legal aid procured made it harder to assess whether the services delivered represent good value for money. The LSC considered the introduction of tendering would remove the imperative for it to know the market, because prices would be set by competition. But the recently announced abandonment of its plans to introduce its tendering proposals following representations from the legal profession leaves the Commission not able to assess if it is paying a reasonable price for legal aid.
The LSC has been responsible for implementing significant reforms to legal aid recommended by Lord Carter, but the PAC concluded that constant changes in staff at senior level, and poor planning of the changes, has meant that reforms have often been delayed, have not always kept to their timetable, and have not been properly evaluated to assess their impact.
The full text of the Committee of Public Accountsâ€™ report â€œThe procurement of legal aid in England and Wales by the Legal Services Commission (Ninth Report of Session 2009â€“10)â€ can be found at