March Report

Criminal Legal Aid

The Law Society met on 12 February.  The main item of business was the imminent announcement of the criminal legal aid cuts.   It was agreed to arrange a further meeting on 24 February especially to deal with that subject.

The following motion was agreed by a majority at the council meeting on 24 February:

“The Law Society remains strongly opposed to the proposed fee cuts. It continues to have very grave concerns about the Lord Chancellor's proposal to adopt a two-tier structure for general and duty contracts. In particular the Law Society questions that approach as well as the impact of those changes on access to justice and on the effective defence of innocent and vulnerable citizens, as well as the impact on diversity within the profession and the need to meet regulatory objectives.

The Law Society should continue to engage with the MoJ to ensure access to justice is maintained, and the diversity of the supplier base. The Society should continue to press for early release of the Otterburn and KPMG reports to the profession. The Society reserves the right to disengage, dependent on the outcomes of negotiation.

The Law Society calls upon the Lord Chancellor to commission and publish an equality impact assessment on his proposed changes prior to implementation of the same.

In the event that the Lord Chancellor's proposals proceed, the Law Society will press the MoJ to work with the Society to develop a support package, and commission and publish, before any further cuts in legal aid rates, an impact assessment of the initial cuts and other changes on the working of the criminal justice system and defence solicitor practitioners.”

This motion has been published on the Law Society’s website.

On Thursday 27 February the Ministry of Justice published its proposals on criminal legal aid.  It pledges to save £215 million by 2018/19 and not to seek any further cuts in criminal legal aid during the lifetime of this parliament (ie until May 2015!).  These are the highlights of the package:

  • A new simplified version of the advocates’ graduated fee scheme which will reduce barristers’ fees by an average of 6% - this will be reviewed after 1 year;
  • A new model of tendering for 525 duty solicitor contracts (plus an unlimited number of own-client contracts) to be allocated through a tight contracting mechanism based on quality and capacity;
  • A phased reduction in solicitors’ fees starting with an additional reduction of 8.75% for new cases starting on or after 20 March 2014, with the next reduction taking effect in 2015.  The new contract structure will be reviewed in 2016.
  • Introducing interim payments for cases with long trials (ie those lasting more than 10 days);
  • Paying higher fees when the prosecution drops a case in the Crown Court (a new cracked trial fee in a Crown Court case, instead of limiting the fees to what would have been paid had the case remained in the magistrates’ court);
  • Providing specialist help and guidance to lawyers who need access to finance to help restructure their businesses;
  • Providing help to solicitors who are preparing for the new tendering process, including establishing a new business partnering network to offer information and guidance to practitioners who are seeking help to restructure their businesses; and
  • Using digital technology to increase the efficiency of courts to enable lawyers waiting to participate in trials to work remotely with free WiFi and access to sockets.

The Law Society continues to oppose the cuts.  It published a press release on 28 February which states:

Law Society Chief Executive Desmond Hudson said:

“The Government’s changes will have a profound impact on our criminal legal aid members who face uncertainty and very difficult challenges in changing their businesses to meet the Government’s new requirements.

“We continue to oppose the cuts. We recognise that the Government has listened to the views of the Law Society and our members and as a result made changes to mitigate their impact.”

The changes include:

  • The reinstatement of client choice.
  • Removal of price competitive tendering.
  • The dropping of both a single fee irrespective of plea and plans for a single national fixed fee for police station attendance.
  • The ability for firms to submit joint bids so increasing the potential number of firms able to participate in the duty market.
  • Loan guarantees, underwritten by the government, to legal firms that need to invest to deliver new contracts.
  • Measures to ease cash flow in legal aid firms through interim payments for Crown Court cases.
  • The offer of business partnering, business planning, accountancy and structural advice.
  • A commitment to commission and publish a review of the impact of these changes.
  • Reinstatement of payment for some ‘cracked’ trials in the Crown Court.

Desmond Hudson continued:

"Our members’ response to today’s announcement will inform our thinking and will influence preparations for the coming implementation and contract bidding process. We will continue to press Government in the coming weeks and months for further measures and to support practitioners through the implementation process.”

The Law Society will be studying the Government's decision and supporting evidence, including reports from KPMG and Otterburn, in detail over the coming days and looking at what further measures the Law Society can put in place to help criminal legal aid solicitors. The Society will continue to consult its practitioner groups, committees and Council Members to reach out to as many members as possible.  The Law Society urges solicitors who are interested to contact their Council Members. We will be issuing detailed support proposals in the coming weeks.

My e-mail address is DixonD@cardiff.ac.uk if you wish to contact ne about this.

Please consider attending the Law Society’s criminal legal aid roadshow on 18 March, from 4:30 - 6:30.  You can book your place using the Law Society’s website.

Silk Commission

The Silk Commission published its second report on the arrangements for devolution in Wales on 3 March.  Amongst other things it recommended a “reserved powers” model of devolution for wales, which the Law Society had also recommended.  We will be discussing the report at the wales committee meeting on 5 March.

SRA consultation on CPD

The SRA is consulting about CPD.  The discussion paper proposes 3 possible models for CPD with the preferred option, which they call Option 1, removing “the prescriptive requirement for solicitors to undertake CPD through specific regulations.  [The SRA] would rely instead on existing provisions in the Handbook and Code of Conduct requiring regulated entities and individuals to deliver competent legal services and train and supervise their staff”.  The deadline for submitting responses to this consultation is 2 April.

The SRA is holding one of its Training for Tomorrow roadshows, dealing specifically with this consultation, at Capital Tower on 12 March from 4 – 6.  I urge all who are interested in this subject to attend.

David Dixon

 

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