Monday, 22 March 2010

Culling of criminal legal aid firms planned

The government has published a paper on radical plans for a shake-up of criminal legal aid this afternoon. It says the aim of these new proposals for the tendering of criminal legal aid services is to deliver 'significant savings to taxpayers and a more sustainable future for the legal aid budget'. It intends to publish a consultation on the proposals after the election.

LAG understands the plans are supported by a group of large legal aid firms including Tuckers, Switalskis and Kaim Todner. Speaking to LAG this afternoon, the legal aid minister Lord Bach said: 'It is not an option not to make changes. We cannot raise rates, but firms are saying they are not being paid enough to be viable.' Under the proposals he says many firms would be forced to close or merge: ' … only efficient firms will thrive'.

Only eight to ten firms for each of the 42 criminal justice areas would be needed and they would be compelled to cover police station and magistrates’ court work - currently some firms only specialise in the more lucrative Crown and high cost cases. LAG estimates that up to 1,500 firms could close down or be forced to merge. The government says the earliest the new contracts could be introduced in selected areas would be by summer 2011. This means that the current crime contract, which was due to run until 2013, would be terminated early.

LAG questions whether these proposals are necessary. Tenders have only just closed for criminal contracts. The proposals will lead to further uncertainty and mistrust of the government among firms. Criminal legal aid expenditure has fallen in real terms by 12 per cent in the last five years and the overall budget for legal aid has remained the same, £2.09 billion, for the last three years. The government has reduced the costs of criminal legal aid by introducing means-testing and cutting what it pays lawyers to provide the service. What this paper proposes is a draconian culling of small and medium-sized firms in a desperate attempt to squeeze further savings out of the system. The risk is that this will restrict client choice and lead to the creation of a monopoly of large firms which would eventually ratchet up prices.

1 comment:

Wiltshire solicitor said...

I suspect as usual at the LSC has not done sufficient homework and then sums right. Apart from the fact that it is quite ludicrous for them to start talking about changing the contracts when the new ones haven't even come into effect, I suspect they haven't given even the remotest thought to rural areas. Changes to the way police station duty solicitors were paid for travel costs simply made it uneconomic for most firms to do any work outside the town where their offices based. What would a cull of firms in rural areas achieve? I can't see that many firms would want to start taking on the risk of launching new branch offices given the current economic climate and inevitability of further legal aid rate cuts.