Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Lord Thomas gives an excellent summary of the arguments against the criminal legal aid reforms

This is such a well-formed and concise critique of the MoJ's proposed changes to the provision of criminal defence services that I felt I could best contribute by reproducing it in the hope more people see it:

Lord Thomas of Gresford

Turning to something quite different, I very much regret that there is nothing in the gracious Speech that would permit parliamentary scrutiny of proposals which seem to be designed to destroy access to justice in criminal cases. The Ministry of Justice’s current consultation is for a scheme of “competitive tendering” for criminal legal aid, which will not require primary legislation.

The consultation is a sham, as Ministers have already decided that they are in favour of such a scheme in principle and, regardless of the consultation, competitive tendering will be introduced within months. The only question posed in the consultation is the precise model. The model proposed by the Government could have been brought forward only by Ministers and their advisers, who have not the slightest experience of the way criminal courts operate or of the professional values, ethics and practices of the legal profession. 

The key parts of the consultation document are chapter 4, on introducing competition in the criminal legal aid market, and chapter 5, on reforming fees in criminal legal aid. Chapter 4 is about introducing price-competitive tendering. Those proposals will be the death of the high street solicitor. The intention is to remove competition on quality and replace it with competition on price alone. In each of the contract areas, which will match the 41 police areas, there will be a set number of contracts. In my own immediate vicinity, there will be four in north Wales, four in Cheshire and some 37 in Manchester. Contracts will be awarded on a three-year basis. Successful bidders will receive a guaranteed equal share of the criminal work in that area. To achieve equality, work will be allocated by a central agency on neutral criteria; for example, by surname alone. The explicit intention is therefore to abolish client choice. A solicitor will be appointed by a central agency to act for a defendant. The reputation and goodwill which solicitors have built up within their area disappear. The skills of firms which have built up particular specialisms—for example, in fraud, terrorism or mentally disordered offenders—will count for nothing. In cities such as Manchester, the skills of firms which have a client base within particular ethnic communities or with particular language skills—for example, Urdu or Polish—are of no value because work is to be allocated on random criteria. As for my home territory, Welsh language provision is seriously compromised. 

The contracts will be one size fits all. There is a Goldilocks problem about this: most firms are too small to bid at all and, ironically, many others are too big to bid. In Manchester there are a couple of firms which have 10% to 15% of the market but which under the new system of equality would be restricted to one-37th of the market, or 2.7%. There may be a handful of firms, or networks of firms, which are just the right size to bid. However, these contracts will go mostly to service companies which have the capital to create a national network with contracts in every area; for example, G4S, Serco, Tesco and the Co-op. Perhaps the most aggressive is the newly arrived Stobart Barristers, an offshoot of Eddie Stobart truckers. Its legal director, Trevor Howarth, confirmed that the firm would bid for the new criminal defence contracts. He said: 

“We can deliver the service at a cost that’s palatable for the taxpayer … Our business model was developed with this in mind. We at Stobart are well known for taking out the waste and the waste here is the duplication of solicitors going to the courtroom. At the moment there are 1,600 legal aid firms; in future there will be 400. At Stobart, we wouldn’t use 10 trucks to deliver one product”. 

I think that, like the Ministry of Justice, he regards people in trouble with the criminal law as units and justice as a common product to be delivered like a load of bricks. Mr Howarth is, I believe, currently on trial himself for contempt of court for allegedly lying in court. I say no more about it.

From a business perspective, however, the changes do not make sense. The companies which win the contracts will be monolithic, national firms. The government agenda generally is supposed to be to support SMEs—small and medium enterprises—but the effect of these proposals will be to send the existing providers, the high street firms, to the wall. There will be mass bankruptcies and redundancies. The new providers, the big companies, will bid low to start with, but once they have destroyed the competition from existing solicitors, inevitably prices will rise, with the profits going to the big boys. 

If the Government’s proposed model is adopted, quality is to be driven down to minimum standards. The single determining factor for success will be price. Practitioners will be valued and rewarded for producing the highest turnover of work at the lowest cost. Literally and intentionally, no value will be attached to quality of representation. If the professions are dumbed down, it will impact ultimately on the judiciary. Someone has already said that, if you have Tesco-grade lawyers, within 10 years you will have to start appointing Tesco-grade judges because they will be the only people to have experience in this field. 

The complaint about the chapter 4 proposals is that they represent the intentional dumbing-down of the criminal justice system. Quite explicitly, the intention is to reduce the quality of representation to a set of minimum standards. No value will be attached to quality of representation. The explicit abolition of client choice will erode confidence in the system. 

The proposals in chapter 5 are about the reform of fee structures. There is opposition to the reduction in fees, which are cutting to levels which are unsustainable, but that is not the main thrust of opposition. The concern is that the new structures are unworkable, the most obvious being the proposals to cut trial fees. In many cases, the advocate will be paid the same for a guilty plea as he or she would get for a trial. In more complex cases, refreshers would be paid on a reducing scale so that, in some cases, they might fall to £14 a day, without expenses. 

The intention is presumably to add to the incentives to defendants to plead guilty. The effect of that is to create conflicts of interest between the advocate and his/her client. The advocate is punished financially if the client pleads not guilty and goes to trial. Not only is that wrong in principle, it is counterproductive: if defendants know that the advocate has a conflicting financial incentive, they will not listen to him when he tells them to plead guilty, because it will be in his financial interest to do precisely that. Hence, there will be more trials, at greater expense. 

The proposals will mean fundamental changes, but there is to be no pilot scheme. One of the most dangerous aspects of the price competitive tendering proposal is the compete lack of modelling or trialling. The Attorney-General, Dominic Grieve QC, gave the explicit assurance before the general election that the Tories would not introduce tendering without full trials first. Why has the one person in this Government with practical experience been overruled? 

The proposals are to be brought in nationwide, commencing this autumn, without any trial period. They will be irreversible, because once the existing providers have gone, they will never come back. It was made clear in Tuesday’s Law SocietyGazette that most of the significant current providers regard the scheme as unworkable and will not tender. 

On the subject of minimum quality standards, there is a link to a separate set of proposals to introduce a quality assurance scheme for advocates. I will not go into that at this stage. Suffice it to say that solicitor advocates can presently obtain higher level grades on the basis of attending a course and giving a good performance in role-play exercises. They are not judged on their actual performance in real cases at a lower level. 

I am a former solicitor, so I have no axe to grind, but a very experienced Crown Court judge, who was also a solicitor, told me recently that the quality of advocacy in the Crown Court is, unhappily, appalling. He faces the dilemma that if he, as the judge, steps in to the arena too often to correct a solicitor advocate who is making a hash of the case before him, it quickly gives the appearance of bias. He was also concerned that in very serious cases, where two advocates are required to represent an accused, the fees structure is such that solicitor advocates now frequently seize the role of junior to themselves. However, he told me, if the lead counsel has to be elsewhere—for example in the Court of Appeal—far from the junior taking over, as has been the tradition at the Bar for ever, the solicitor advocate immediately applies for an adjournment. He can not carry the weight or responsibility of the hands-on conduct of the case. That judge told me that he was in despair. 

I have to say that no one with experience of the criminal courts could ever advise a young person starting his career to take up the role of a criminal advocate. Centuries of experience have created the system in which a team of solicitor and counsel work to high ethical standards to ensure that justice is done. I shall be sad if liberals of any political party or none in this House assist in its destruction.

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