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Criminal Legal Aid

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 6 May 2014

8. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of recent changes to criminal legal aid on law firms and access to justice. (903846)

Recent changes have been made to criminal legal aid because of the imperative to make savings across the Department. We are committed to ensuring the sustainability of the changes that we are making, and to reviewing them a year after implementation of the respective new arrangements.

I recently met solicitors from a couple of small firms based in Bristol that deliver criminal legal aid work, and they told me that not only the 17% cut in fees over two years, but in particular the changes to the duty solicitor contract, will put them out of business. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at the smaller firms who will not be likely to win such contracts, and at the impact that will have on the representation of people who live in places such as Bristol?

We looked at these issues carefully and took two steps that I hope will help on this front. The most important step was that we are allowing those small firms to bid as consortia so that they can share contracts as long as they cover for each other to ensure the duty work is provided. We also did detailed work with external consultants to ensure that we identified how big a contract needed to be to be sustainable, so that we have sustainable contract size and the option for small firms to bid in consortia. That is the best way of delivering changes that I know are painful but, of course, were in the hon. Lady’s party’s manifesto.

When my right hon. Friend is drawing comparisons about the costs of cases, will he try to make sure that the income that will be expected to accrue to the various barristers taking part in those cases is considered, rather than the totality of costs, as it can be difficult to make a sensible judgment about what is fair and unfair?

My hon. Friend is right to say that we have to be very careful. Of course the gross fees that are cited include VAT and chambers’ fees, but those barristers also derive benefits from being self-employed that counteract some of the reductions they experience, because they can offset many other parts of their expenditure and overheads against tax in a way that employed people would not be able to do.

How many more serious fraud trials in the pipeline are struggling to secure legal representation for the defence, in a way similar to the case that collapsed last week, where the judge was forced, in effect, to abandon the trial because of Government legal aid changes?

As I said, given that this case is subject to appeal, I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment further on it.

What is the Lord Chancellor going to do about the fact that senior counsel are not prepared to take on the defence roles in very complex cases, given that he has a case to put about cost saving and they have points to put about complexity? Talks will surely have to take place, and brinkmanship on either side will not serve the interests of justice.

We are taking the financial decisions we are taking for a simple imperative: we have to make an extremely difficult budget add up. We are applying the changes we are applying to those at the higher end of the income scale. I am confident that through the public defender service and other routes we will be able to meet the needs of cases, as and when they arise, and of course PDS advocates were available for these cases.

Will my right hon. Friend also look at the impact on the criminal legal aid budget and access to local justice of decisions such as that made by the judicial business group in Bedfordshire to move criminal cases from Bedford magistrates courts to Luton, thus, in effect, closing the magistrates courts? The move was opposed by local lawyers, local law firms and magistrates; it was an administrative decision designed to skirt democratic accountability. Does he agree that it could have an impact on costs, which should be part of the decision-making process?

I am aware that a number of decisions of this kind are being taken by local committees. Of course such decisions can also mean civil cases moving into those same court buildings, which brings justice closer to communities in matters such as tribunal cases. I am aware of the issues in Bedfordshire to which my right hon. Friend refers. Where changes of this kind occur I have asked my Department to examine possible uses of technology, for example giving access to courts for witnesses. I know he is discussing this matter with the Minister who has responsibility for courts and will continue to do so.