Monday, 14 September 2009

Criminal delay

On 11 September, the Legal Services Commission (LSC) announced that it will defer the start of tenders for the new criminal contract for at least two months. Included in this is the best value tendering process for the two pilot areas in Greater Manchester and Avon and Somerset. Good move we say. However, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) announced its consultation on the proposed cuts for criminal work on 20 August. Why then did it take the LSC three weeks to decide to delay the bidding process?

Surely it had worked out that you cannot invite firms to bid for work if they don’t know how much they will be paid? Perhaps not. It seems more likely that LAG, the Law Society and others pointing out to the LSC the unfairness of what it was proposing, combined with mutterings about a possible judicial review, made it change its mind. Any strategy the MoJ and LSC had for criminal legal aid appears to be in tatters.

The MoJ’s paper on the proposed cuts is inadequate. It fails to state how much it is seeking to save or outline in detail the Crown Prosecution Service fees it is arguing that defence counsel should have parity with. The government also wants to shave five per cent off the budget for very high cost criminal cases (VHCC), but the options to do this have not been announced yet. They will only be outlined in a further consultation paper. A cross-subsidy operates between Crown Court work, VHCCs and the less profitable police station and magistrates' court work. Surely it should be obvious to the LSC that without all the proposed prices on the table firms cannot make any decisions about their future bids?

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