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Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

I am today publishing the Government response to the “Transforming Legal Aid: Next Steps” consultation that took place in the autumn of 2013. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The House will be aware that this programme of reform commenced in April last year when we launched the initial consultation “Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a more credible and efficient system”. The rationale for proposing this package of measured reforms has always been clear and has always remained the same: due to the acute pressure on the public finances we must continue to bear down on the cost of legal aid to ensure we are getting the best value possible, while ensuring that the system commands the confidence of the public. When almost every area of public spending is facing increased scrutiny, the legal aid scheme cannot be ring-fenced.

Today’s publication outlines the Government’s final decision on a modified model of competitive tendering for criminal legal aid contracts in England and Wales; and a range of new measures requested by the Law Society and others to help lawyers through what I know will be a challenging period. The plans published today include a package of financial support and specialist advice specifically designed to help lawyers respond to the current challenging economic climate, including:

a commitment to work with BIS to provide guarantees for commercial loans to legal firms who need to invest to deliver the new contracts;

measures to ease cash flow in legal aid firms through interim payments for lengthy Crown court cases;

exploring the possibility of grants to aid practitioners to invest in digital technology as part of a digital criminal justice system; and

providing, through business partnering, support and guidance on business planning and restructuring.

The response paper also outlines our approach to reform the advocates graduated fees scheme (AGFS) in order to achieve further simplification of the fee structure by adopting a model broadly based on the Crown Prosecution Service model.

As part of our ongoing monitoring of the impact of reforms and the sustainability of the scheme generally, the Ministry of Justice will undertake reviews of the operation of the new advocacy and litigation services frameworks one year after each is implemented.

We recognise that it is not simply legal aid funding arrangements that determine the success and viability of the criminal justice system, and we have distinct pieces of work that will complement our plans for legal aid. The independent Jeffrey review into the provision of independent criminal advocacy in the courts continues and will report in due course. In addition, the Lord Chief Justice has asked Sir Brian Leveson, president of the Queen’s bench division, to conduct a review to identify ways to reduce to the minimum the number of pre-trial hearings that necessitate defendants in custody and advocates attending court; and to identify ways to reduce and streamline the length of criminal proceedings.

Alongside the response to consultation we are laying later on today the Government response to the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) report on three parts of the reform package: restricting the scope of criminal legal aid for prison law, the residence test for civil legal aid and removing civil legal aid for borderline cases.

As we move away from the consultation phase to delivery, subject to parliamentary approval where applicable, we will continue to engage with the professions to help them prepare for the implementation of these reforms.

Taken in its entirety, we estimate the “Transforming Legal Aid” package will save the taxpayer around £215 million per annum by 2018-19.