The Government has announced its intentions to make further cuts to the legal aid programme; concentrating especially on prisoners cases; and criminal legal aid. The oft mooted and abandoned price competitive tendering of criminal work (but not Crown Court advocacy) is of particular interest as an attempt to force through a minimum of 17.5% cuts. I can’t do much better than refer you to Roger Smith’s excellent blog, but a few points are worthy of further note.
The attempt to force firms to merge or form consortia to bid for contracts is of particular interest Add tight timetables, reduced remuneration, and a one size fits all contract to the mix and there are opportunities for significant problems even with very well managed bids. Community Legal Aid Centres and Networks were an attempt to do something similar with a much gentler timescale and within a looser framework. Competition as a means of forcing unwilling providers together is fraught with difficulties.
The second point, which has not garnered much attention, is that the consultation pushes criminal defence firms and (through direct access) barristers towards charging privately for work. Messy boundaries between legal aid and private work; the possibility of ‘unbundled’ models of criminal defence practice; the risks of vulnerable punters being the victim of sharp charging practices (exacerbated by the desperate straits some firms will find themselves in) and the rise of unrepresented litigants in Magistrates and Crown Courts may be giving regulators and Courts headaches for some time to come.