Weren’t the government meant to be cutting the number of criminal law firms a few weeks ago?
First the government say they want to slash the number of legally aided criminal law firms by two thirds, and now the Justice Secretary has given plans to increase the number of solicitors the thumbs up.
What is going on?
The recent history of legal aid has been a well-documented shambles. The much-hated Chris Grayling took aim at criminal law firms in his (notoriously bad) stint as Lord Chancellor, in a swathe of government reforms that saw legal aid rates tumble. The government announced its plans to cut the number of duty contract holders from 1,600 to 527, ordering criminal lawyers to bid for key contracts.
Then the tendering process was forcibly pushed into the spotlight by angry lawyers when it came to light that the whole thing had been botched. The profession was up in arms, and there was a real fear that criminal law had become a futureless profession.
But it wasn’t long before there was another twist in the tale. Just a few weeks ago, Justice Secretary Michael Gove shunned the dual contract system altogether, and now he seems to have gone one step further.
Now the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) — a branch of the Ministry of Justice — has reportedly extended legal aid contract eligibility, and has gotten in touch with successful duty contract bidders to encourage them to join new schemes. Lawyers have been told that they can bid for additional contracts, but only in places where the firm has extra offices and staff.
This plan will see the number of criminal solicitors rise, and represents a major political u-turn in the long-running legal aid fiasco.
The government just can’t seem to make up their minds about what to do about the lawyers. Gove and co, however, disagree, issuing a statement this afternoon insisting that they know exactly what they’re doing. A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said:
It’s nonsense to suggest market consolidation is going into reverse. The legal professions themselves have told us on numerous occasions that the criminal legal aid market is already consolidating without government intervention and this is expected to continue.
As a gesture of goodwill, the LAA has decided that the small number of organisations who opened new offices and recruited staff, at their own risk, in preparation for dual contracting should be able to take on legal aid work in those areas.