A key element of the Government’s legal aid reforms has been put back for a number of years after opposition from lawyers.
Solicitors and barristers reacted with horror to proposals in this year’s legal aid green paper that contracts for work on legally-aided criminal cases could be put out for tender to the lowest bidder.
Consultation was due to begin late this year, but Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has announced that the process has been postponed until autumn 2013, with the first contracts now expected to go live in summer 2015.
The Bar Council and the Law Society, representing barristers and solicitors, both welcomed the delay, which they said would allow for more extended consideration of the impact of Mr Clarke’s proposals.
Meanwhile, Mr Clarke also announced a six-month postponement until April 2013 in the planned abolition of the Legal Services Commission and its replacement with a new executive agency to run the legal aid scheme in England and Wales.
The introduction of revised eligibility criteria for legal aid in civil cases will also be put back from October 2012 to April 2013, along with the introduction of new contracts and an advice phoneline for the delivery of civil legal aid.
Welcoming the delay to competitive tendering, chairman of the Bar Peter Lodder QC said: “This reflects the concerns that the Bar Council has raised for several years about the principles of price-based competition in the provision of these public services.
“The Bar has repeatedly argued for the need to maintain high quality advocacy, in the public interest, especially during this time of acute fiscal austerity and as significant changes in the provision of legal services are being made.”
And the chief executive of the Law Society, Desmond Hudson, added: “Criminal defence firms will be grateful for the certainty that they have been given for the next three years; and in particular, firms that do both criminal and civil work will be glad only to have to consider changes in one part of the business over the next 18 months.
“The Law Society is keen to discuss its own ideas for reform of criminal legal aid and this new timetable will now give us the opportunity to discuss these with Government.”
In a statement to MPs, Mr Clarke said he continues to believe that competitive tendering “is likely to be the best way to ensure long term sustainability and value for money in the legal aid market”.
He added: “Pressure on legal aid expenditure is likely to continue, increasing the need for further reform of the current arrangements for administratively-set remuneration rates in the absence of competition.
“The Government believes that tendering criminal defence work for competition, alongside regulatory changes, has the potential to significantly modernise legal aid provision, improve the service provided to legal aid clients, streamline the procurement process and deliver value for money for the taxpayer.”
Meanwhile, Mr Lodder said the Bar Council was “very alarmed” at the prospect that the LSC could be abolished before the payment of a “substantial” backlog of fees owed to barristers - understood to run into millions of pounds.
“We note the delay in the abolition of the LSC but we remain very alarmed about the continuing and worsening problem of late payments of advocates’ fees,” said Mr Lodder.
“The Bar Council calls on the Ministry of Justice to ensure that the LSC is properly resourced to meet its continuing responsibilities. The Government should honour its obligation to pay members of the Bar for services they have provided - in some cases, very many years ago.
“The Government has affirmed the importance of timely payment to small businesses, but it is failing to set an example by allowing these appalling delays to continue.”
Mr Hudson said the Law Society had long argued the October 2012 deadline for the LSC was “impractical”.
“The Government has taken a sensible decision to defer this deadline,” he said.
“The new timetable is still challenging, given the work required to implement changes of this magnitude.”