Lord Thomas of Gresford: Turning to something quite different, I very much regret that there is nothing in the gracious Speech that would permit parliamentary scrutiny of proposals which seem to be designed to destroy access to justice in criminal cases. The Ministry of Justice’s current consultation is for a scheme of “competitive tendering” for criminal legal aid, which will not require primary legislation.
The consultation is a sham, as Ministers have already decided that they are in favour of such a scheme in principle and, regardless of the consultation, competitive tendering will be introduced within months. The only question posed in the consultation is the precise model. The model proposed by the Government could have been brought forward only by Ministers and their advisers, who have not the slightest experience of the way criminal courts operate or of the professional values, ethics and practices of the legal profession.
Price Competitive Tendering (PCT)
The key parts of the consultation document are chapter 4, on introducing competition in the criminal legal aid market, and chapter 5, on reforming fees in criminal legal aid. Chapter 4 is about introducing price competitive tendering. Those proposals will be the death of the high street solicitor. The intention is to remove competition on quality and replace it with competition on price alone. In each of the contract areas, which will match the 41 police areas, there will be a set number of contracts. In my own immediate vicinity, there will be four in north Wales, four in Cheshire and some 37 in Manchester. Contracts will be awarded on a three-year basis. Successful bidders will receive a guaranteed equal share of the criminal work in that area. To achieve equality, work will be allocated by a central agency on neutral criteria; for example, by surname alone.
The explicit intention is therefore to abolish client choice. A solicitor will be appointed by a central agency to act for a defendant. The reputation and goodwill which solicitors have built up within their area disappear. The skills of firms which have built up particular specialisms—for example, in fraud, terrorism or mentally disordered offenders—will count for nothing. In cities such as Manchester, the skills of firms which have a client base within particular ethnic communities or with particular language skills—for example, Urdu or Polish—are of no value because work is to be allocated on random criteria. As for my home territory, Welsh language provision is seriously compromised.
One Size Fits All
The contracts will be one size fits all. There is a Goldilocks problem about this: most firms are too small to bid at all and, ironically, many others are too big to bid. In Manchester there are a couple of firms which have 10% to 15% of the market but which under the new system of equality would be restricted to one-37th of the market, or 2.7%. There may be a handful of firms, or networks of firms, which are just the right size to bid. However, these contracts will go mostly to service companies which have the capital to create a national network with contracts in every area; for example, G4S, Serco, Tesco and the Co-op.
Perhaps the most aggressive is the newly arrived Stobart Barristers, an offshoot of Eddie Stobart truckers. Its legal director, Trevor Howarth, confirmed that the firm would bid for the new criminal defence contracts. He said:
“We can deliver the service at a cost that’s palatable for the taxpayer … Our business model was developed with this in mind. We at Stobart are well known for taking out the waste and the waste here is the duplication of solicitors going to the courtroom. At the moment there are 1,600 legal aid firms; in future there will be 400. At Stobart, we wouldn’t use 10 trucks to deliver one product.”