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Duty contracts: a change of heart

29 January 2016

Richard Messingham considers the scrapping of the controversial duty contracts scheme for criminal legal aid.


Last week's parliamentary highlight was the lord chancellor's decision to reverse the policy put forward by his predecessor, Chris Grayling, to scrap the 'dual contracting' scheme for duty contracts in criminal legal aid, and also to postpone for a year the second fee cut.

It is not the first time that the lord chancellor, Michael Gove, has taken a stand and overturned his predecessor's decisions. In October last year, he ditched a £5.9m contract to provide a training programme for prisons in Saudi Arabia, and he also scrapped the controversial criminal court charge just before Christmas. 

Described by many as a reformer and a 'principled man', Gove has demonstrated his ability to take a pragmatic approach to reform combined with a sceptism of more traditional approaches to the justice policy, both of which show he is at least willing to think again when needed.

Monday 25 January 

House of Commons 

Urgent question: tax avoidance

Following a settlement between HMRC and Google where Google was allowed to pay just £130m in tax, the shadow chancellor of the exchequer John McDonnell tabled an urgent question. Responding to the question, financial secretary David Gauke said the government had been working to ensure that the UK's tax system was competitive and the correct amount was paid. During the debate the legal profession was mentioned in two contexts: 

• Labour MP Barry Sheerman argued that however hard HMRC works the best tax experts and 'highest paid lawyers' are hired by large companies and however the law is changed, "they will find a way around it". 

• Conservative MP David Nuttall argued that the best way for HMRC to collect more tax was for the house to pass tax law which is "clear, precise and understandable without the need to refer to tax lawyers and accountants."

The Treasury Select Committee launched an inquiry into "how tax policy is made, how tax collection is administered and how to address the vulnerability of the tax base". The Committee has invited written submissions by 31 March.

Find out more about the inquiry

Tuesday 26 January

House of Commons 

Justice: oral questions

On Tuesday the lord chancellor and his team of ministers at the Ministry of Justice responded to questions from across the Commons. The key points were:

• Announcement of a working group on the military and human rights - human rights minister Dominic Raab MP announced that the lord chancellor has asked him to set up a working group with the minister for armed forces to look at "ambulance chasing lawyers" and claims against the military. The working group will look into: legal aid; use of no win, no fee agreements; time limits for claims; and disciplinary procedures for law firms. 

• No update on criminal legal aid at this point (see below) - shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter MP specifically asked the lord chancellor about the press speculation on criminal legal aid and Gove gave no update. He simply repeated government lines about the need to reduce spending on criminal legal aid to shrink the deficit and that we have the most generous legal aid budget of any jurisdiction. 

• Capacity to undertake courts investment programme - Justice Select Committee chair Bob Neill asked if the Ministry of Justice had sufficient in-house capacity to deal adequately with major issue such as court restricting and whether they were considering bringing outside expertise. Human rights minister Dominic Raab MP stated that the Ministry of Justice will "take advantage of the ingenuity" of the private and voluntary sector where necessary. 

The Law Society was mentioned in a question by Labour MP Rachael Maskell who said that the Law Society describes access to justice as being "on the verge of crisis" while asking whether the minster will carry out a full review to understand the equality of the changes in civil legal aid. In response, courts and legal aid minister Shailesh Vara said that the government is committed to a full review of the implementation of LASPO and repeated that the UK has one of the most generous legal aid budgets in the world. 

Wednesday 27 January

House of Commons 

Prime ministers questions: human rights and legal aid

Conservative MP Nusrat Ghani MP said that recent explosion of spurious legal claims against British troops, including those pursued by the law firm that has donated tens of thousands of pounds to the shadow defence secretary, undermines the ability of the UK's armed forces to do their job. She asked if the PM would join her in repudiating the disdain this shows to the UK's service men and women. 

The prime minister, David Cameron, said he absolutely agrees with Ghani. He said that the country holds service personnel to the highest standards and it is right to do so. But it is quite clear that there is now an industry trying to profit from spurious claims that are lodged against the UK's service men and women and he is determined to do everything he can to close this bogus industry down. The government should start by making clear that it will take action against any legal firm found to have abused the system to pursue fabricated claims. He said that this is absolutely not acceptable.

People updates

Following the recent Labour reshuffle there have been a number of appointments to select committees, including in Business, Innovation and Skills, where former trainee solicitor and Labour MP Jonathan Reynolds has replaced Jo Stevens.

Thursday 28 January

Government 

Changes to criminal legal aid contracting

Justice secretary Michael Gove announced that the government is to scrap its controversial 'dual contracting' scheme for criminal legal aid. He also said he would postpone plans to cut the fees paid to law firms representing defendants who could not afford to pay lawyers themselves. 

President of the Law Society Jonathan Smithers is quoted in several articles including the Guardian, Solicitors Journal, and Law Society Gazette. His full statement says: "The Law Society is pleased that the lord chancellor has listened and recognised that the current situation is untenable. It is clear that a competitive approach to the provision of criminal legal aid services is not appropriate. Criminal legal aid solicitors provide 24-hour cover so that anyone accused of wrongdoing, including some of the most vulnerable in society, have access to expert legal advice. The assurance that there will be no competitive tendering in the future gives practitioners greater certainty for the future". 

Read the full announcement

Friday 29 January

House of Commons

Urgent question

Shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter tabled an Urgent question on criminal legal aid services. Legal aid and courts minister Shailesh Vara answered on behalf of the lord chancellor. 

The Labour Party took this opportunity to highlight the government's mistakes in handling the criminal legal aid contracting process, and to highlight another policy u-turn. 

Main points:

Andy Slaughter commended the work done by the Law Society and other organisations for their campaign on legal aid.

He asked whether the government will:

  • make an assessment of the use of public money and civil service time wasted in the criminal legal aid process
  • apologise to the firms affected
  • remove uncertainty regarding the future of legal aid cuts, and
  • speed up the LASPO review

In his response, Shailesh Vara reiterated the main points expressed by Michael Gove in his announcement yesterday. He confirmed that the MoJ will review progress made with the profession before considering further cuts. He also noted that the introduction of the current contract system in 2013 was supported by the Law Society.

Tags: Westminster weekly update | legal aid | criminal legal aid

About the author

Richard Messingham is head of public affairs at the Law Society. He and his team are responsible for supporting the president and CEO to manage the Society's relationships with Parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants and other major stakeholders of direct relevance to solicitors.
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