Government makes u-turn on legal aid choice

2 July 2013

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2 July 2013 | Paul Snell

The UK government has changed its mind and will continue to allow clients a choice of solicitor when it introduces competitive tendering for criminal legal aid. 

The plan to introduce competitive tendering, outlined in a consultation published in April that has been attacked by organisations representing the legal profession, proposed removing the opportunity for clients to change the provider allocated to them, allowing providers to exploit economies of scale and offer a lower price.

But in a letter to the Parliamentary Justice Committee, justice secretary Chris Grayling said he was looking again at the issue as a result of consultation responses and expected to make changes to allow a choice of solicitor. “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,” he said.

The move has been welcomed by both the Law Society and the Bar Council, which represent solicitors and barristers respectively in England and Wales.

Chairman of the Bar Maura McGowan QC said in a statement: “We welcome the government's change of heart on this, but we hope it is also listening to the many voices that are clear that price-competitive tendering in any form is not a suitable mechanism for allocating legal aid contracts. Legal aid contracts should not just go to the bidders who are willing to do the work for the lowest price.”

But Grayling’s letter also reaffirmed commitment to the plans to cut £200 million from the state’s legal aid bill. “In light of last week’s spending review, no-one should doubt the need for my department to reduce its expenditure on criminal legal aid as outlined in the consultation document. I am determined to do this in a way that maintains a sustainable legal aid system, with quality at its heart.”

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