Source: The Telegraph
Chris Grayling has announced a climb-down over legal aid reforms that would have restricted public funds to a handful of big law firms.
In a small victory for lawyers fighting the proposed shake-up, a crime suspect will still be able to go to any solicitor or barrister and apply for legal aid.
Law groups had criticised the proposed change warning it took away a client’s freedom to choose who they wanted to represent them.
The Justice Secretary has relented and said he now expects to allow such a choice to remain.
Mr Grayling hopes proposed reforms to criminal case funding will cut £200 million from the annual £2 billion legal aid bill.
Planned changes will see fees in some trials being cut by up to a third.
In other changes, defendants will have to pay their own legal bills if they live in households with an annual disposable income of £37,500 or more.
The U-turn relates to plans to introduce competitive tendering in to the legal system that will see law firms bidding for work.
Part of the move was to restrict legal aid to a set number of law firms which, in turn, meant they would have more certainty over how much work they would have.
However, the proposal met with fierce criticisms and Mr Grayling wrote to the Commons Justice Select Committee, ahead of his appeared before it on Wednesday, to announce his change of heart.
In a letter to Sir Alan Beith, the committee chairman, he said: "One specific point in the consultation which has attracted significant response is the proposal to remove client choice in the model for competition for criminal litigation.
"The rationale for proposing this change was to give greater certainty of case volume for providers, making it easier and more predictable for them to organise their businesses to provide the most cost-effective service to the taxpayer – it is not a policy objective in its own right.
"However, I have heard clearly from the Law Society and other respondents that they regard client choice as fundamental to the effective delivery of criminal legal aid. I am therefore looking again at this issue, and expect to make changes to allow a choice of solicitor for clients receiving criminal legal aid."
Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, President of the Law Society, said: "By listening to us on client choice, the Government has shown it is serious about constructive engagement, which I welcome. Client choice of solicitor is a fundamental component of a fair justice system and a driver of quality in provision of legal advice."
Kat Craig, legal director at human rights group Reprieve, said: "The Justice Secretary is finally starting to realise just how ill-conceived these proposals are.”
Maura McGowan QC, Chairman of the Bar, said: “Retaining client choice in legal aid would represent a significant victory for the broad coalition which has been pressing the Government to think again about some of its proposals.
We welcome the Government’s change of heart on this, but we hope it is also listening to the many voices which are clear that price competitive tendering in any form is not a suitable mechanism for allocating legal aid contracts.”