Ministry of Justice proposals for competitive tendering

On 9th April 2013, a consultation called ‘Transforming Legal Aid: Delivering a More Credible and Efficient System’ was launched by the Ministry of Justice about the way in which criminal defence cases are funded. 

At the moment we, like most criminal defence firms in the UK, have a contract with the Legal Aid Agency which enables us to represent you with the benefit of Legal Aid, if you meet the appropriate tests in respect of financial eligibility and the interests of justice.

The new proposals have a number of potential consequences for Legal Aid and the way in which criminal defence services will be provided in the future.  Under the proposals, the number of contracts available for the Thames Valley area drops to just four.  Those four contractors will have to cover the whole of the Thames Valley area in relation to both police stations and Magistrates’ Courts, from Milton Keynes to Aylesbury, High Wycombe, Slough and Oxford.  This means there may be huge delays in your representative getting to the police station or to court.  Successful bidders do not even have to be based in the area; they can be national companies, some of which you would not ordinarily even associate with the provision of legal services, such as Tesco’s and G4S.  If they’re not based in the area, getting to see them is going to be difficult.

Those who secure these contracts are likely to get paid the same fee whether or not you plead guilty.  There are therefore concerns from the legal profession that defendants might end up getting pressurised into pleading guilty when firms try to maximise their profits, or that they might not prepare any trial as fully as they might otherwise do.

However, one of the most significant changes, and the one which is of the greatest concern, will be to your choice of representative.  For example, should these proposals take effect, there will be no choice as to who represents you when you are arrested.  You may ask for your ‘usual’ or preferred solicitor but, if he or she is not ‘next on the list’ to receive a case, you generally won’t be allowed to have them.  You will be required to stay with your allocated solicitor for the duration of your case, whether you like it or not, unless there are exceptional circumstances.  Even if all your life you have used the same solicitors, whom you completely trust and who know all about your background, you won’t necessarily be allowed to have them.

What can you do about this?  If you are concerned about the impact of these proposals, we would invite you to sign the e-petition by following the link here: http://epetitions.direct.gov.uk/petitions/48628