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Criminal Legal Aid

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 2 July 2013

8. What representations he has received from smaller law firms on his proposals to reform criminal legal aid. (162391)

The recent consultation “Transforming Legal Aid” generated around 16,000 responses, which, contrary to reports, have been read extensively by individuals, including many by myself. Many were from smaller law firms or those who work within a smaller law firm. I have personally attended events organised by the Law Society where I met many solicitors who practise with smaller firms. I met a number of people from smaller firms in the north-west last week, and we will continue to talk to all the representative bodies in the weeks ahead.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer. On 24 May, when I met a number of solicitors and barristers from across Pendle, they raised several concerns with me. However, principally they believe the savings that my right hon. Friend is planning to make have already been made, and the figures the Government are using are out-of-date legal aid totals. What reassurance can he provide to them?

I can give my hon. Friend my assurance that that is not the case. There are a number of false rumours floating around. The figures that we used for the recent consultation were based on the criminal legal aid spend in 2011-12, which were the most up-to-date figures when we published the document. When developing these proposals, we have also taken fully into account the savings that came out of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which were presaged by the previous Government, who set in train the initial process towards cutting legal aid costs. However, given the continuing pressure on public finances, we do, I am afraid, still need to bear down on the cost of legal aid.

Could the Secretary of State assure the House that none of the e-mailed responses to his consultation has been deleted? To make everybody happy, will he ensure that every single one of them is published, because there seems to be a story out there that somehow or other his Department is not interested in the response to the consultation process, and therefore it has been deleting unwanted e-mails? I am sure that is not the case, but could he assure the House that it is not so?

My understanding is that that is not the case, and if there is any suggestion that it is the case, we will ask the people who sent the e-mails to resend them. However, I can assure the House that as far as I am aware, every submission is in our hands, is being read, and will be considered properly.

All of us understand the need to control costs, but I wonder how the Secretary of State will ensure that the creation of a single fixed fee, payable regardless of whether an individual pleads guilty, will not create a direct conflict of interest between the legal representative and his or her client.

It is clearly in our interests to have a system where we encourage people who are guilty to plead guilty early. That saves money. It is the right thing to do for society. I do not believe or accept that we would be in a position where any qualified lawyer would try to encourage someone to plead guilty when they were not guilty, but of course we are listening to all the responses from the consultation and will bring forward further proposals in due course.

May I say, in the most courteous way, to the Justice Secretary that he should revisit some of the answers on legal aid he has given today? He is just wrong on a number of points. There is now a general consensus that his Department’s reform of court translation services was a shambles—the Select Committee on Justice, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee all agree. What differences are there in his plans to reform legal aid to avoid repeating the mistakes made in the previous set of reforms?

Let us be clear: it is no secret that the handling of contracting of translation services could have been better, and lessons have been learned. However, that service is now delivering to a very high standard and saving the taxpayer millions of pounds. The Opposition simply do not get that we have to take tough decisions to save money to deal with the mess they left behind.