Legal aid changes: An update

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Since the last post on this subject there has been a number of interesting developments regarding the proposed changes to criminal legal aid.

First, the e-petition reached over 100,000 signatures. This was an amazing achievement which meant the threshold for sparking a parliamentary debate was passed. This was the initial view, however, subsequent events may have dampened this achievement somewhat.

The proposals to criminal legal aid and the opposition to them aroused interest from the Justice committee; the Justice Committee was appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and associated public bodies.

On the 11th June 2013 the committee heard evidence from Michael Mansfield QC and Maura McGowan QC who both tenaciously put forward arguments opposed to the legal aid changes. As a result of this the committee called Chris Grayling to give evidence in relation to his proposals. This took place on the 3rd July 2013. In a dramatic twist, just days before Mr Grayling was due to give evidence, he wrote to the committee outlining his position had changed somewhat. He had decided to remove the element of his proposals which would see potential defendants unable to choose their own solicitor. This was seen as a concession to which Mr Grayling had made in order to still push thorough the equally opposed plans of price competitive tendering (PCT). He also assured the committee there would be a second ‘short’ consultation after the MOJ issues its response to the consultation in September.

The effect of Mr Graylings ‘U-turn’ on the choice element could effectively render the e-petition as being satisfied. This is due to the wording of the petition being centred on the element of choice. This could be potentially fatal to the petition.

Furthermore the Attorney General, Dominic Grieve QC, wrote an open letter stating his views on the proposed changes. What was critical about this was that at no time did he offer any support for the changes. His parting words were:

Policy in this areas is owned by the Lord Chancellor and not me. But I have already spoken to the Lord Chancellor and will continue to draw to his attention the concerns that have been expressed to me. I will endeavour to ensure, as far as I can, that the decision he reaches in due course is a fully informed one.

The effect of this letter was to effectively highlight the Attorney General’s concerns regarding the proposed changes. This could have be seen as a momentous act if it did not stop just short of expressly denouncing the plans. It is of course not for the Attorney General to do so, as he quite rightly points out. The full letter can be found here: http://legalaidchanges.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/ag-panel-counsel-17-6-13-2.pdf.

Nonetheless, controversy still surrounds the MOJ in many other areas of its current policy which can be seen from today’s news. Mr Grayling has had to instruct the Serious Fraud Office to investigate G4S in relation to its management and handling of the electronic tagging contract it was awarded. This is clearly a blow to Mr Grayling. Sir Alan Beith, chair of the Justice Committee, suggested to Mr Grayling that the MOJ does not have the capacity to make new contracts relating to criminal legal aid. He stated their recent contracting decisions have been ‘shambolic’. This was a direct accusation relating to the interpreters contract given to Capita which still shows no sign of improvement. Mr Grayling stood his ground and defended his proposals on the basis that it was a well thought proposal and in the interests of the public as money needs to be saved.

 

There is a potential light at the end of the tunnel. The upcoming cabinet reshuffle which will take place over the summer may see Mr Grayling perhaps moved somewhere more appropriate. The argument resonates near and far; why do we have a Lord Chancellor with no legal qualifications? Surely it is inadequate to have as head of the MOJ someone who has no background in the legal profession. Hopefully Mr Cameron will take note of this and learn from what can only be described as an error of judgement.

However, in defence of Mr Grayling, understandably he has been tasked with the role of saving money. An argument which carried weight given the current economic climate, which still shows little sign of improvement. On the other hand, the way he has gone about it seems typical of someone with a business background, as opposed to a legal background. His changes in relation to interpreters, tagging contracts and so forth have probably cost the MOJ just as much as they were proposed to save. The planned changes will of course do exactly the same and lead to disproportionate costs in other areas of government’s budget, therefore, all they will actually achieve is the result of shifting the cost, not actually reducing it. With all the potential they have to cause an increase in miscarriage of justice cases and erode the rule of law, it is submitted that they are adequately defunct of the purpose they seek to achieve.

 

11/07/2013

Dale Timson

LLB (Honours) Student & Aspiring Barrister 

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