Update on All-Party Group on Legal Aid
Eleanor Sanders, project worker to the All-Party Group (APG) on Legal Aid, writes:
The APG held a meeting on Wednesday 20 March 2013. The topic of this meeting was competitive tendering for criminal legal aid contracts. The meeting was particularly timely, as earlier in the month the government had announced in ministerial statements that it intended to accelerate the planned period for consultation on crime competitive tendering to April 2013 (see also page 4 of this issue).1See: www.parliament.uk/documents/commons-vote-office/March-2013/5-3-13/6-Justice-LegalAidReform.pdf. This decision has led to significant concerns among practitioners.
The case for competitive tendering …
The meeting was addressed by Dr Elizabeth Gibby, deputy director, legal aid and legal services policy at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). Dr Gibby made a key point that the government intends to consult only on the model, rather than on the principle, of competitive tendering: it is the government’s firm intention to introduce competition. She explained that the motivation is to improve efficiency and save money in the context of the tight financial constraints facing the MoJ. Dr Gibby added that she and her team were taking pains to consult with all interested parties, and emphasised that quality would be a key element of the reformed system. She encouraged the audience to respond to the consultation.
And the case against …
An alternative picture was painted by the remaining speakers, who all raised strong concerns about competitive tendering. These speakers were Stephen Hockman QC, a former chairperson of the Bar Council; Richard Miller, head of legal aid at the Law Society; Greg Powell, executive officer of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association; and Robin Murray, vice-chairperson of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association. A key message was that competitive tendering would force firms to focus on struggling for survival rather than providing a quality service to their clients. It was felt that a market-based analysis could not be relied on to promote access to justice. It was also feared that the market would turn into a monopoly, with only a handful of providers and no competitors left to bid for the next round of contracts. Although impressed by the personal efforts of Dr Gibby to approach the issues even-handedly, the speakers were dismayed that the consultation would not be considering alternatives to competitive tendering.
■ Full meeting notes and a briefing are available at: www.appg-legalaid.org/. ■ For further information about attending future APG meetings, please email: conference@lapg.co.uk and quote ‘APG on Legal Aid’ in the subject line.

About the author(s)

Eleanor Sanders is a barrister at One Pump Court. She was a project worker to the All-Party Group on Legal Aid.