This new consultation ensures that all those solicitors who currently provide criminal legal aid work to their own clients will continue to be able to do so, as long as they meet minimum quality requirements. The Government is also seeking views on an updated tendering model for duty work, such as in police stations. This model would be based on quality, and implementation would be timed to give the market more opportunity to prepare.
To ensure the Government is doing what it can to support lawyers through this period of reform, interim payments will be made more readily available to help overcome cashflow problems in long-running cases. We will also establish a panel of experienced defence lawyers to further examine how we can make the criminal justice system more efficient.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said:
“This Government is on the side of people who work hard and want to get on in life. We have an excellent tradition of legal aid and one of the best legal professions in the world. But we cannot close our eyes to the fact legal aid is costing too much.
“I have listened to lawyers’ concerns and had constructive discussions with The Law Society. They acknowledge that, whilst it may be difficult, change is also inevitable. But it must be the right change that brings about the right outcomes. The proposals we have agreed make sure legally-aided lawyers will always be available when needed and that people can choose the lawyer they want to help them.
“Even after these reforms, we will still have one of the most generous legal aid systems in the world. I want to ensure the limited money we have is concentrated on those cases and people who need it most.”
The Government has today published its response to April’s consultation and announced it will:
• Stop criminal legal aid being given to prisoners unnecessarily – such as those seeking an easier ride in another prison. These types of concern can be resolved through the prisoner complaints system – as well as other mechanisms – and do not require a lawyer. This will prevent around 11,000 cases each year being funded unnecessarily by criminal legal aid;
• Introduce a threshold on Crown Court legal aid to stop the wealthiest defendants with an annual household disposable income of £37,500 or more being automatically granted legal aid, which means we have to fight to get the money back after their trial. This would only affect defendants who have around £3,000 or more left in the bank each month after paying their essential bills – such as food, mortgage or rent, utilities, childcare etc.;
• Introduce a residency test so that only those with a strong connection to the UK are able to receive civil legal aid. We have listened to comments made on the consultation and will modify our approach in some areas – for example children under 12 months old will not be required to have at least a year of previous lawful residence;
• Further consult on a revised proposal to discourage weak judicial review cases by tightening up the payment mechanism. We intend to set out further details of this proposal within a wider package on judicial review soon;
• Make it harder for claimants to use civil legal aid to bring speculative cases by ensuring all cases must have at least a 50% chance of success to be funded. Introduce limited changes to civil and experts’ fees to ensure that they are fair, represent value for money, and reflect fees paid for similar services elsewhere.
• Reduce the cost of the long-running criminal cases, which place too much of a burden on taxpayers, by 30%. A small number of cases (called Very High Cost Cases) cost a disproportionate amount of the legal aid budget - just one case recently cost more than £8 million in legal aid. In the current economic climate this cannot continue.
We are also further consulting on revised proposals as below:
• Two options for reforming Crown Court advocacy fees. Building on the Bar Council’s response to April’s consultation, we have proposed an entirely new fee structure, adapted from the model operated by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). We have also modified our original proposal for reforming fees. We invite comments on which is the preferred option;
• A new model of tendering which achieves value for money and makes sure there is always help available for those questioned or charged with a crime. There will be a set number of contracts available for duty work which will be assessed on the basis of the quality and capacity of organisations bidding for them. In conjunction with the Law Society we will commission independent research to help inform our assessment of the number and size of duty solicitor contracts that would be awarded;
• An unlimited number of contracts being available for own client work – as long as they meet the minimum quality requirements;
• Putting in place a slower timetable for the implementation of the new criminal legal contracts and staging fee cuts to legal aid rates to give the market more time to prepare. An initial reduction of 8.75% would take place in early 2014 and again in spring 2015.
Taken together, the changes to the legal aid system would achieve savings of around £220 million a year from 2018/19.
Chris Grayling added:
“I do recognise that a package of changes driven by harsh economic reality is tough, but I cannot change the financial reality I am dealing with. Between 2010 and the end of 2016 the Ministry of Justice is required to reduce its budget by around a third. That has meant, and will continue to mean, tough decisions. But this is not something that is being directed at legal aid alone.
“We want to ensure the entire criminal justice system and legal market is both efficient and sustainable. As part of this I have today appointed Sir Bill Jeffrey to conduct a thorough and independent review of independent criminal advocacy.
“As well as this, our rehabilitation reforms should ease pressure across the criminal justice system, by making renewed efforts to tackle reoffending and we are looking into how we can reform the courts so they are better value for the taxpayer. We will also be recovering more money from offenders, seizing more assets, stepping up fine enforcement and a whole range of other ways to make ends meet.”