I set up this petition because the Ministry of Justice have indicated that they intend to introduce price competition for criminal defence services and that they will be consulting on the matter towards the end of 2011. The petition is intended to galvanise opposition to the proposals as publication of the consultation draws closer.
It is also intended to give the MoJ an opportunity to engage with the profession in the hope that they will realise that price competition is not the way forwards.
Price competition might be an effective mechanism for buying filing cabinets or waste paper bins but not criminal defence services where justice is at stake.
In his March 2010 report for the MoJ, Sir Ian Magee observed that “the (Legal Services) Commission has worked to control the amount of expenditure incurred on criminal legal aid. This has fallen in real terms by 12% over the last five years. The Commission has primarily controlled legal aid expenditure by implementing a series of significant reforms to the remuneration of and eligibility for criminal legal aid, which have not always been welcomed by the profession”.
Again in March 2010 the Ministry of Justice document ‘Restructuring of the Delivery of Criminal Defence Services’ stated “we are very aware of what criminal legal aid providers have been telling us about the sustainability of the system. They have said that they are at or close to the point at which it is no longer profitable for them to carry on”. (Jack Straw).
Cuts imposed by the Labour Administration under Jack Straw or his predecessors have had a profound effect. Figures published by the Legal Services Commission last week show that expenditure in the Magistrates courts and at police stations has dropped year on year for the last five years and is now below 2001/2 levels, which is extraordinary when one considers the rise in the cost of living during that period. In April 2009 Monthly Payments to solicitors nationally for police station and Magistrates court work totalled £39 million. By July 2011 the figure had reduced to £31 million. Each month ‘crime lower’ is costing the Government £8 million less that just over two years ago. Savings made as a result of measures introduced prior to the General Election truly are enormous.
Following the General Election austerity measures were announced without any recognition of the fact that Criminal Defence practitioners had already been through a 5 – 10 year period of austerity. Despite what Sir Ian McGee and Jack Straw recognised, further cuts were implemented that will have a dramatic effect upon practitioners throughout 2012. Even conservative estimates suggest that firms are likely to see income reducing by up to 10% and some estimates place the figure at a much higher level.
Against this backdrop, the MoJ are proposing price competition in an attempt to drive rates lower still! The wheels are about to come off. We should pride ourselves on the emphasis this country places on concepts of justice and liberty instead of trying to pay for it on the cheap.
The Government needs a period of stocktaking. It should do nothing until it has had chance to assess the impact of the cuts that have just kicked in. Price competition will not save a penny in the short term, it is a long term solution, and I believe it is the wrong solution.
The petition went live on Thursday 3rd November and by Monday 7th September almost 1000 people had already signed it.