My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has made the following written ministerial statement.
“I am publishing “Legal Aid Reform: the Way Ahead” (cm 6993). This sets out how we will reform the procurement of legal aid services, moving towards a market-based system. It takes account of the responses we received to the consultation paper “Legal Aid: a sustainable future” (CP 13/06) which was published simultaneously on 13 July 2006 with Lord Carter of Coles' independent report “Legal Aid - A market-based approach to reform”. The paper has been laid before both Houses of Parliament. Copies are available in the Printed Paper Office and the Vote Office.
Our reforms to legal aid procurement fit squarely within the Government's wider programme of reform across the justice system. We are promoting simple, speedy, summary justice in the criminal courts, and modernising the legal sector through the introduction of the Legal Services Bill last Thursday. The proposed changes to legal aid procurement represent another important part of this programme and it will bring benefits for clients, taxpayers, the legal profession and the wider justice system. The reforms will make sure we have modern a modern legal aid system and have a legal profession that is customer-focused and in which the public has confidence.
The consultation period closed on 12 October. We received 2,372 replies to the consultation paper. Over the summer months, the Legal Aid Minister, Vera Baird QC MP toured the country to meet practitioners to hear their views on the proposals. This involved some 25 meetings in 11 different cities, attended by around 1,000 practitioners. The Legal Services Commission also met practitioners to explain the proposals and answer questions. Over 1,700 legal aid professionals attended 14 of these events in the early autumn.
The “Way Ahead” paper sets out how the Department for Constitutional Affairs and the Legal Services Commission will deliver a new system of legal aid procurement. The reforms will set legal aid on a sustainable footing for the future, and will ensure that the most vulnerable people in our society receive the help they need. The reforms will ensure a future in which the legal advice provided is of the highest quality and practitioners are able to make a decent financial return, and a future which ensures that access to justice remains at the heart of our society.
We are fully committed to the market-based approach set out by Lord Carter. We will move to fixed and graduated fees as a transitional step to best-value competition. However, we have listened carefully to the concerns expressed by legal aid practitioners. We have therefore made significant adjustments to the timing and sequencing of some of the proposed schemes, as well as to the detail of some original proposals, where we believe they will bring improvements.
In summary, we are proceeding with Lord Carter's proposals. And we are delivering on our commitment to rebalance the funding between civil and criminal legal aid.
The approach set out in the “Way Ahead” paper offers the best guarantee of an affordable, good quality legal aid system that will protect the vulnerable, is fair to taxpayers, fair to defendants, and fair for practitioners.”
I have asked the Leader of the House to announce a debate on this issue in the House of Commons very shortly.