Last updated:2023-09-18
Proper evaluation of BVT 'vital' says Tory shadow
An All Party Parliamentary Group on Legal Aid was launched at a meeting in the House of Commons last Tuesday (2nd June). A packed meeting was chaired by Karen Buck MP who will also chair the group which aims 'to promote parliamentary and public understanding of the importance of the role of publicly-funded legal services as a pillar of the welfare state and in reducing inequalities in society'.
Legal aid minister Lord Bach spoke at the meeting. Welcoming the establishment of the group, he said it would 'promote understanding of legal aid within parliament' but he warned that 'the legal aid system has got to be sustainable and help as many people as possible. This involves tough choices if we are to keep legal aid within budget'. This comment seemed to be aimed more at his shadow minister, Henry Bellingham MP who was sitting by him, than at the audience which was composed mainly of legal aid lawyers angry at government cut backs. Bach also reiterated his message about 'rebalancing money towards social welfare law as the legal aid system should be there for the people at the bottom of the pile. I don’t think it is practical to ask to double the budget'.
Roy Morgan, chairperson of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), argued that the move to reduce face to face advice in police stations would lead to miscarriages of justice. Morgan echoed the concerns of many in the room about best value tendering (BVT) for police station and magistrates' court work when he said: 'Why is this reform necessary now? Why not, as promised, have a pilot followed by an evaluation? Instead of just evaluating the tender process?' Interestingly, Morgan seemed conciliatory in tone towards Lord Bach, saying he believed he was listening to practitioners' concerns but the Legal Services Commission (LSC) was not.
Bellingham had said in his speech: 'It is vital that BVT has a proper evaluation.' Clearly then, the pressure is on the government from all sides to think again on BVT or at least carry out a proper evaluation before rolling it out. LAG’s conference next Thursday (11th June) will give an opportunity to question Lord Bach again and to hear from Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve about the Conservative party’s plans for legal aid.
There were many good contributions from the floor at the meeting from practitioners including Kat Craig from Young Legal Aid Lawyers (YLAL) who complained about there being 'so little to show for answering every consultation from the LSC'. In her view 'the current system does not allow for quality work'. Many speakers also paid tribute to the work of LAPG and YLAL in establishing the group.
LAG believes the group will act as an important conduit for informing MPs about developments in the legal aid world. LAPG and YLAL deserve much praise for getting the initiative off the ground as does Karen Buck MP, who is a great campaigner on access to justice issues in parliament. We’d warn, though, that the group will lose any influence if it is perceived to be dominated by practitioners and their worries about the impact of legal aid changes on their incomes, instead of focusing on the concerns of clients.