Lawyers ♥ Michael Gove
Criminal solicitors around the country will be breathing a sigh of relief this afternoon, as at last the much-hated dual contracting system that threatened their livelihood has been scrapped.
Not only that, but a fee cut to legal aid rates introduced last summer has been suspended.
The controversial dual contract system required criminal law firms across the country to ‘bid’ for one of 527 duty contracts, to allow these firms to carry out duty work in courts and police stations. The entire process has been fraught with claims of malpractice since the start, prompting lawyers to unite against the government in a staggering series of legal challenges. Morale in the sector has been depressingly low in recent months, with some top lawyers going as far as to describe criminal law as a futureless profession.
Justice Secretary Michael Gove has been worming his way into lawyers’ good books since he took up his chancellorship, slowly unpicking the disastrous policies left behind by his predecessor, Chris Grayling. He reversed the ban on books in prison and, just last month, he eradicated the much-hated criminal courts charge.
And today’s announcement may just be the light at the end of the tunnel for struggling legal aid lawyers.
Gove broke the long awaited news in a written statement to parliament this afternoon, in which he noted that:
My Department currently faces 99 separate legal challenges over the procurement process, which has required us, anyway, to stay the award of new contracts at least until April.
Announcing the news we’ve all be waiting for, he continued:
I have decided not to go ahead with the introduction of the dual contracting system. I have also decided to suspend, for a period of 12 months from 1 April 2016, the second fee cut which was introduced in July last year. As a consequence of these decisions the new fee structure linked to the new contracts will not be introduced.
Explaining why he has made this political U-turn, Gove explained:
My decision is driven in part by the recognition that the litigation will be time consuming and costly for all parties, whatever the outcome. I do not want my department and the legal aid market to face months if not years of continuing uncertainty, and expensive litigation, while it is heard.
Details are still very thin on the ground about the new contracting system that firms will work under, with Gove promising that there will be more details in due course.
The reaction from the Twitterati was, unsurprisingly, one of delight:
Dual contracting has ended. The Lord Chancellor must be commended for some sensible decision making & for properly engaging with us.
— Zoe Gascoyne (@Zoe_Gascoyne) January 28, 2016
MoJ's own expert advice from KPMG made clear that the fee cut and two tier contracts were unsustainable. Delighted Gove has pulled the plug.
— Dinah Rose (@DinahRoseQC) January 28, 2016
— The Secret Barrister (@BarristerSecret) January 28, 2016
— Simon Myerson QC (@SCynic1) January 28, 2016
Some were, however, quick to point out that these reforms could well have come sooner, with legal journalist John Hyde noting on Twitter that while Gove will be “praised by lawyers for reversal … he did drag this thing out for months as well”.