|Chris Grayling MP - Sec. of State for Justice|
Since 1st April, civil legal aid has been slashed under Part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012. Many areas of great importance were removed altogether from the scope of legal aid. The full impact of these cuts on access to justice for individuals and families remains to be evaluated.
Legal aid in criminal cases - already curtailed to a considerable extent in recent years - is now under attack and
an e-petition seeks to secure a debate in Parliament about the MoJ's latest proposals. The petition now has in excess of 60,000 signatures but at least 100,000 are needed before Parliament even considers whether to permit a debate. These proposals are likely to lead to serious injustice and the devastation of the independent criminal bar - please see the post by Mark George QC at The [Justice] Gap and also the earlier post on this blog. A truly independent criminal bar is an absolute necessity in any democratic nation: a very building block of democracy.
Law Centres are on the edge of extinction due to lack of funding - The Law Society Gazette (27th May 2013) As cuts of £350m to the civil legal aid budget bite, the services of Law Centres are needed more but local authorities are not usually putting up funds. Central government has little to no interest in funding this valuable sector even though timely advice can often avoid a court or tribunal hearing.
The MoJ's budget is large and, in 2012, the Ministry had 1219 contracts for various services. Some of the contracts involved huge expenditure. Examples include £140m for food; Agecroft Prison Management (£909,747.075); Applied Language Solutions (court interpreter services - see Justice Committee report) £125m; Bridgend Custodial Services Ltd £1515,255,225; Serco (for electronic monitoring of offenders) £176,581,883. Ashley Underwood QC was paid £100,000 for services in connection with the Azelle Rodney Inquiry. The Inquiry website informs us that total legal costs at 31st December 2012 were £1,438,054. Clearly, some of the MoJ expenditure is necessary and some of the contracts may well be 'one offs' but it is no surprise that government is seeking to bear down on some of the costs. Also, bear in mind that court closures over the last few years - especially of Magistrates' Courts - should, by now, have resulted in cost reductions. Further court closures are bound to arise.
For more on the MoJ's 2012 budget - see theintragent blog 29th May - Third letter to the Lord Chancellor - well worth reading!
Outsourcing of probation services is another controversial area. The government wishes to see more use of community sentences with various rehabilitative programmes being offered by commercial providers rather than the Probation Service. Such providers would be paid by results. The New Statesman offers three reasons why outsourcing is not a good idea. The author, Alan White, ends by saying: 'It’s hard not to conclude the reforms are a frantic attempt to put ideology into action before an electoral deadline, rather than any kind of considered response to the problems of reoffending. The Government must tighten up these proposals. Damage to public safety is a high price to pay.'
Please also see the excellent article by Francis Fitzgibbon QC - Short Cuts - which ranges critically over the various reforms put forward by Chris Grayling including the restrictions on Judicial Review particularly in immigration and planning cases.
According to an article in The Times (28th May) by legal editor Frances Gibb and Richard Ford, the latest MoJ wheeze is to privatise the courts. The Times operates behind a pay wall so, if needs be, I will follow up on this later. However, The Times website said:
Courts to be privatised in radical justice shake-up
According to The Guardian 28th May, the MoJ has denied this privatisation story. The article states:
The Ministry of Justice has dismissed claims that is actively considering "the wholesale" privatisation of the courts service as part of a radical review to save funds. While confirming that civil servants are looking at ways of improving the efficiency of the HM Courts and Tribunal Service (HMCTS), the MoJ denied that it planned to outsource all court buildings to a private contractor. Responding late on Monday night to claims that a sale was actively being considered, an MoJ spokesperson stated: "We have always said we are determined to deliver a courts system that is more effective and efficient and provides improved services for victims and witnesses. The proposals being considered are not the wholesale privatisation of the courts service. We are committed to the firm, fair and independent administration of justice.
and, yes, there is little doubt that further cuts are to come. The BBC 28th May reports that 'George Osborne (Chancellor of the Exchequer) has reached agreement with seven Whitehall departments on savings he wants in 2015. The chancellor said he had found 20% of the £11.5bn he wants to cut spending by in the year from April 2015. Justice, energy and communities are among the departments agreeing to "significant savings", he said, adding that health, schools and foreign aid would be protected from cuts.'
In my email this morning came the following:
We have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and spend more than £1billion of taxpayer’s money on criminal legal aid each year. We must ensure we get the very best value for every penny spent. We are tackling areas which are eroding public confidence – such as wealthy defendants who can afford to pay their own costs routinely receiving legal aid; prisoners being given legal aid for issues better dealt with by via the prisoner complaints system; a small amount of high cost cases swallowing up many millions in pubic money; and those who do not have a strong connection to this country qualifying for legal aid. Under the proposals for reform of the criminal legal aid scheme that we are consulting on until 4 June, quality assured duty solicitors and lawyers would still be available – just as they are now. All providers would be required to satisfy specified quality standards when they submit their tenders and subsequently through contractual requirements. They would therefore all be capable and competent of delivering criminal legal aid services to any client. The consultation proposals aim to deliver a more credible and efficient system which will save £220million from the legal aid bill by 2018/19. The consultation is open until 4 June and the department welcomes submissions on its proposals ..... This e-petition remains open to signatures and will be considered for debate by the Backbench Business Committee should it pass the 100 000 signature threshold.
In this post I do not intend to unpick this response save to note that it is misleading in several respects and it will lead to loss of choice of solicitor for legally aided defendants and the allocated solicitor will get the same fee whether the plea is guilty or the case goes to trial. Please consider signing the petition - Save UK Justice. These changes are so crucial that they should not be allowed to be implemented by stroke of the Ministerial pen without Parliamentary debate.
Addendum 29th May:
The Justice Committee will be taking evidence on the criminal legal proposals on 11th June - Parliament.