Friday, 17 July 2009

Criminal BVT despair

On 15 July, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid heard evidence from legal aid practitioners near despair at the government’s plans for best value tendering (BVT) for police station and magistrates' court work. The committee, which is chaired by London MP Karen Buck, plans to push for an adjournment debate in the autumn, but this will probably be too late for Greater Manchester and Avon and Somerset which have been selected as pilot areas due to start in April next year.

Tony Edwards (TV Edwards LLP, London) won the outstanding achievement award at the Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year awards in December 2008 in recognition of his distinguished career in criminal legal aid. He also sat on the Legal Services Commission board for seven years and drove the quality agenda on criminal legal aid. His criticism of the potential impact of BVT on quality is therefore particularly compelling. In his view BVT as it is proposed is 'all about price competition and this will drive down quality'. Edwards pointed out that in his firm he has a supervisors to junior staff ratio of 2:1 whereas the proposal under BVT would allow up to 1:4. 'To compete on these terms my firm would have to change this by a factor of eight.' He went on to describe how most practitioners build their businesses on own client work which in itself is a method of quality control as clients return to or recommend a solicitor only if s/he does a good job. As the BVT proposals are currently drafted clients would be only able to choose a solicitor in the police station area in which they are arrested.

Another heavyweight of the criminal practitioner’s world, Rodney Warren, also gave evidence. Warren talked about 'the different world' of undertaking criminal legal aid work in the early 1980s before the introduction of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) 1984. He fears that for firms to compete in a BVT system they will have to cut corners leading to miscarriages of justice. Edwards said: ' … it troubles me the amount of police officers younger than I and the even younger Ministry of Justice civil servants who try to argue that times have changed from the pre-PACE days'. He went on to tell the group about a recent experience when he attended a police station. 'A detective sergeant was attempting to bully a 16 year old into confessing to a robbery he was not guilty of. This had to be challenged and I doubt if it was not for my age and experience the sergeant would have backed down.'

Some informed opinion believes that the general roll-out of BVT will not happen as it straddles the general election and any incoming government will want to take stock before proceeding. Edwards believes a market mechanism might control the price of the work but what is proposed could 'destroy the very best firms'. A re-evaluation of BVT then would seem to be the best way forward.

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