Thursday, 17 December 2009

Criminal BVT pilots abandoned

It looks like the final nail in the coffin of best value tendering (BVT) has now been hammered in - for now at least. The government has announced that it is abandoning plans for the pilots. The tendering process had been due to start in the New Year for Avon and Somerset, and Greater Manchester. This climb down will come as a considerable relief to the practitioners in these areas.

It seems to LAG that the government was swayed by the argument that it was unfair to expect firms to tender for the work when the consultations on Crown Court and Very High Cost Cases fees were still pending. Firms need to know what fees they can expect across the board in criminal work before they tender for police station work.

The government and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) say that they are going to work up alternative plans. The legal aid minister Lord Bach told LAG this afternoon that he expects 'by March next year to have some outline improved proposals'. Any implementation will be down to the next government. Both the LSC and government still seem convinced that some form of competitive tendering can provide the magic bullet to control legal aid costs. We at LAG remain sceptical.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Criminal fee cuts announced

Cuts in fees for criminal legal aid have been announced by the government. Details of the cuts were given by legal aid minister Lord Bach in a written ministerial statement to parliament at 12 noon today. The cuts follow the proposals outlined in the August 2009 paper, Legal aid: funding reforms. The main proposals are:

- Fees for police station work will be cut back in the areas the government describes as 'the most expensive and over-subscribed'. LAG understands that this could hit up to 160 areas.
- One fixed fee will be paid for committal hearings.
- The fee for file reviews in criminal cases will end.

An announcement on the reduction in experts' fees, which had also been proposed, will be made in January. The government will also launch a second consultation on reducing Crown Court fees. The government estimates that £23m will be made in savings from the cuts announced today over the next year.

LAG knows that these cuts will hit some hard-pressed firms, especially in London, where the cost of undertaking police station cover can be higher due to delays and the diverse range of clients who need advice. In some respects, though, this could be seen as the least worst option if the cash saved can be used to prop up the civil legal aid budget which is creaking under the strain of increased demand caused by the recession.

LAG is being told by legal aid lawyers that the Legal Services Commission has run out of money for civil cases. For £23m, 115,000 more clients in debt or 132,000 more clients with housing problems could be seen. LAG will be seeking assurances that this money will not disappear back into the Treasury's coffers, but will be used to help people cope with the effects of the recession.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Don't back down Bach!

In a meeting yesterday, the legal aid minister Lord Bach told leaders from groups representing legal aid lawyers that there would be no new cash for civil legal aid. This is despite growing evidence of the increasing numbers of people who need help with civil law problems.

LAG is hearing from practitioners that they are being refused permission to start new cases once they have reached the limit set by the Legal Services Commission. According to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) there have been 20,000 more cases between April and August 2009 than in the same period last year. With four or five months being the likely wait for permission to take on new cases, the fear is that many clients needing help with problems caused by the recession will be cut off from getting legal advice.

Lord Bach told the meeting that the Treasury would 'laugh' if he approached it for more cash to fund the extra work needed. While LAG appreciates the difficult financial position the government is in, we do not believe that the MoJ should cower away from making its case for more money. It is an unfortunate, but wholly predictable, effect of the recession that the demand for civil legal aid has increased.

Civil legal aid should be seen as part of the welfare state's safety net to help people in these difficult times. Like other state benefits the government should meet the cost of these extra cases as as essential part of its response to helping people through the recession. The relatively paltry sum in government terms of £10 million could buy an extra 30,000 or more cases and bring justice to victims of this bank-inspired recession.