Friday, 28 June 2013

The Legal Aid Debate

Yesterday the House of Commons debated the proposed reductions in the Ministry of Justice's budget.
The full debate is here:

As the Speaker made clear at the start the debate was massively oversubscribed, and although the Backbench Business Committee had allocated 3 and 3/4 hours many MPs could not get in. However, it did give the chance for the House to set out orally what a lot of us have been saying privately and in writing to government. I have personally met with members of the solicitors and barristers professions in my area and the wider North East and also have met the Chairman of the Bar Council and various of the Circuit leaders. Many of my former colleagues will be duirectly affected by the changes as I spent nearly 15 years practising largely at the criminal bar. I have replied individually to the points made to me by local constituents but it is worth setting out some of my thoughts on the proposed changes:
- I have no doubt that the government needs to cut the bill that the state is presently is required to spend on legal aid in this way. Although this government has cut budgets of various departments dramatically we still spend more than we earn and this is not sustainable. I have seen Defra and other budgets cut by up to 30% - other public sector workers are taking significant pain and lawyers have to do the same. That principle is, I am afraid, unanswerable. Every government, of whatever hue, would be doing such things.
- However, the key argument for me is how we achieve the cuts. That is where I and other colleagues have been devoting our time with the Secretary of State and others. The debate sets out the key areas members would like to see cut but for me the chief targets are:
- Very High Cost Cases which suck out so much of the budget by soliciotrs and to a lesser extent the Bar. There is abuse and put simply such cases take too much money of a limited budget, impacting on the service of the many. Criminal legal aid accounts for £1 billion of the overall legal aid budget, with nearly 45% on VHCC - this has to change
- there are enormous savings to be made through the system running more efficiently, with fewer delays and mishaps. We must be careful that a rise in the number of litigants in person will almost certainly have a knock-on impact on the justice system, and not in a helpful or money-saving way.
- I am no fan of Price Competitive Tendering and am arguing against its inclusion in the long term plans. It will have an impact on the provision of legal services in largely rural communities. It is fair to counter that argument with it not being the job of government to provide state services indirectly but that is not an argument I feel comfortable with when one considers the difficulties in living in the country's most sparsely populated county. We are constantly fighting a battle here in Tynedale on the aspects to which the state is responsible for the provision of services to the consumer public that I see this discussion and its effects as a similar point. A balance has to be drawn.
I could not speak in the debate but suspect that it will be raised again in parliament, both in public and private, in the next few weeks, and will update key constituents as best I can.