As the House knows, this Government have embarked upon a process of repairing the public finances, after years of reckless borrowing and financial crisis under Labour. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor explained at the spending review in June, we are making good progress, but we must continue to take the tough decisions necessary. No area of our spending has been immune from scrutiny. Our legal aid system is a major part of my Department’s budget, and it is therefore necessary that we look to make savings there, too. The Ministry of Justice will see its budget reduced by nearly a third between 2010 and 2016. Our reforms would see the legal aid fund reduced by the same order of magnitude. It is worth saying that we have one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world and that, by comparison with similar jurisdictions elsewhere, we spend between two and three times as much per head of population on legal aid. That is simply not sustainable for the future.
The House will remember that I set out our initial proposals to meet those challenges in April. In doing so, I emphasised two important objectives. The first was to ensure that we could live within our means and still deliver a quality legal service to those who need legal aid. The second was to guarantee access to justice by creating a firm contractual framework for criminal legal aid. That would enable us to ensure that we retain legal aid-funded legal support in all parts of the country, provided by organisations that will be financially sustainable in a tougher funding climate.
After publishing our initial proposals in April, we have undertaken intensive negotiations with the Law Society, which represents legal aid solicitors, who are the most affected by our proposals on criminal legal aid contracting. I am pleased to tell the House that we have reached agreement with the Law Society on a package of revised proposals on criminal legal aid contracting, which we are publishing for consultation today, and a copy has been deposited in the Library. I would like to express my thanks to the Law Society team for the constructive way in which they have approached a set of negotiations that I believe have led to a good deal for this country.
The proposals will mean that all those accused of a crime receive high quality legal representation, that defendants are free to choose their lawyer, whether they want a big firm, their local high street solicitor or a particular specialist, and that all those who currently provide criminal legal aid services can continue to do so, provided they meet minimum quality standards. However, I have to ensure that every person arrested and put in a police cell has access to a lawyer. In future, therefore, duty slots will be allocated through a tight contracting mechanism, based on quality and capacity to ensure that only firms or groups of firms that demonstrate clearly that they have the financial strength to operate in this new, tighter financial environment will provide that guaranteed support in police stations.
The financial situation that this Government face means that fee reductions are inevitable. However, I have agreed to phase these between early 2014 and the spring of 2015, in line with a new timetable for contracting, so that firms have time to prepare and adjust. It is important to note that these proposals will enable my Department to operate within our spending review settlement, and therefore represent a long-term and sustainable way forward for the Government and for the profession. This is a good deal for the country and for the taxpayer. In addition, in order to reduce financial pressures on legal aid lawyers, I plan to make staged payments more readily available, to improve their cash flows.
In order to meet our financial objectives for Crown court costs, I am putting forward for consideration two options on advocacy fees. One builds on the proposals we put forward in April, but sets a floor below which fees cannot go, and recognises that there should be a different fee for guilty pleas and trials. The other is based on a scheme put forward in discussions between us and the Bar Council, and I am grateful to the Bar Council for that proposal. It draws on the scheme used by the Crown Prosecution Service. Both schemes represent a sensible way to reduce fees, particularly for the highest earners, as well as speeding up and simplifying the administration of the legal aid system. We will be guided by the views of the profession and other stakeholders in reaching a final decision on which scheme to implement.
It is also clear to me, particularly following the consultation that we have carried out, that it is not simply legal aid funding arrangements that determine the success and viability of the legal professions. I am therefore taking a series of steps that will demonstrate that the Government are serious about maintaining the legal profession in this country as a world leader. We have to go further to ensure that the criminal justice system is more efficient, so that cases do not demand more time and resources than necessary, in terms of public money and of the individual commitment by the lawyers involved. Alongside the criminal justice action plan announced by the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice earlier this year, we are therefore putting together a panel of criminal lawyers to look at the whole legal process, to identify scope for improvements and to draw up proposals for reform. We need to speed things up and to reduce work loads.
It is also clear that advocacy is facing an uncertain future, given the rise of different routes into the profession, increasing supply but decreasing demand, regulatory changes and financial challenges. I have therefore asked Sir Bill Jeffrey to conduct an independent review of the future of criminal advocacy in England and Wales. This review will be carried out in partnership with the Law Society and the Bar Council.
Our initial proposals in April also set out a number of other changes to legal aid, in order to ensure public confidence in the system. I now plan to go ahead with most of those, subject to a number of limited modifications and exceptions. In particular, we will introduce a new residency test that will prevent most people who have only just arrived in the UK from accessing civil legal aid until a year after they arrive. We will limit criminal legal aid for prisoners so that it is not available unnecessarily. There will be no more legal aid available because someone does not like their prison. We will also set out new rules that will mean that, in most cases, the wealthiest Crown court defendants—those in households with more than £3,000 of disposable income left each month after tax, housing costs and other essential outgoings—will have to fund their own legal costs.
When I set out our initial plans in April, I was clear that they were for consultation. I have kept that promise. I believe that what we have agreed with the Law Society on criminal legal aid contracting is a sensible revised proposal that is tough but realistic. I shall be interested to hear whether the Opposition support the agreement. I do not deny that some of the proposals will be challenging for many, but in the context of unavoidable spending restraint, I have worked with representatives from the solicitors’ profession and the Bar to achieve the best outcome for everyone. I believe that it offers value for the taxpayer, stability for the professions, and access to justice for all. I commend this statement to the House.
I shall start by thanking the current Lord Chancellor for giving me advance sight of his oral statement just over an hour ago. However, I am still somewhat puzzled as to why today’s edition of The Times was considered a more important outlet for the public announcement of this climbdown than the proper place for such an announcement, which is here in Parliament. Can the media-shy Lord Chancellor explain that rather odd decision to the House?
Let me reiterate Labour’s position. We support efforts to find savings across our criminal justice system. We support making those who can afford to pay their legal fees to do so and restricting legal aid to those truly most in need. We also support using the frozen assets of criminals to fund their legal costs, and we want a more efficient system. We offered months ago to work with the Justice Secretary, but he arrogantly refused, although I note that he has taken on board many of our concerns, which we welcome, and adopted our idea of having a review and asking experts to look at the legal processes to see whether further positive reforms can be made. Will he please give the House more details of this review?
Today’s statement provides confirmation that the Justice Secretary’s plans—and they were his plans—really were half-baked, legally illiterate nonsense. He has been forced to climb down, and the sloppy way in which he goes about making policy has been exposed by experts in the field—from judges to rape victims, and from high street solicitors to the victims of miscarriages of justice, who really know what they are talking about.
This Justice Secretary was warned—by us and others—that his plans would see the destruction of a swathe of legal small and medium-sized enterprises across the country, yet he denied that it would happen. He was warned that the removal of client choice would undermine confidence in our legal system; he denied it. He was warned that a flat fee would put pressure on the innocent to plead guilty; he refused to accept that, either. Does he now agree with all those criticisms of his original proposals?
This is the first time that the Justice Secretary has participated on a debate in this Chamber on legal aid, so I have a number of further questions for him. Will he confirm that the 16,000 representations that the Ministry of Justice received about his plans is a record? I note, of course, that the Justice Secretary has made a deal with the trade union for solicitors, the Law Society, which we welcome. Does the Law Society fully accept the plans he has published today? Does he still stand by his previous public criticism of the barristers’ trade union, the Bar Council? What discussions has he had with it about these plans? Will he confirm that his latest plans still lead to a single fee for magistrates courts’ work, regardless of whether the case is a guilty plea or a trial? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that this could lead to a perverse incentive to persuade a defendant to plead guilty when he or she is not guilty. Given that the Government have changed their mind on this issue for Crown courts, why not for magistrates courts, too?
The Justice Secretary will be aware that small and medium-sized firms undertaking legal aid work are already struggling to survive. There is a real concern about their future viability after a 17.5% cut in their fees. In that light, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us about the impact assessments he has done on his latest plans? What will be their impact on high street firms, on junior barristers, on black, Asian and minority ethnic solicitors and barristers, and on access to solicitors across the country, particularly in rural areas?
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us what changes he has made to his plans for civil legal aid and judicial review, bearing in mind the many concerns raised across the House about them? He should now be aware that his plans for civil legal aid would have prevented the Gurkhas and the family of Jean Charles de Menezes from getting legal aid, while his plans for judicial review would create a perverse incentive for lawyers not to settle cases because they will need to get permission at a court hearing to recover costs. How is he going to address those concerns?
I am pleased that the Justice Secretary used his summer to swot up on the law and the justice system. I am glad that the primer worked. I am pleased that he appears finally to have seen sense and to have listened to those who know better. We will study the new plans closely, and consider the 270-page document published by him today. The public want confidence that the rule of law is being preserved, that access to justice is being maintained and that those truly guilty are being prosecuted and punished after due process. The justice system needs to be both credible and efficient. These are the tests we will continue to use in looking at the Government’s plans to reform legal aid.
The Opposition are obviously finding all this rather difficult, because they agree that we have done the right thing. It is clear to me that the days of beer and sandwiches are long gone, because the Labour party has forgotten how a negotiation works. It works like this: you put forward proposals, you listen to a representation from the other side, you engage in a negotiation, and you reach a settlement. That is what we have done, and this is a good settlement for Britain. It enables us to meet our spending review targets, which is what the country would expect. What the Opposition do not like is the fact that we have done the right thing and arrived at the right objective—and we should remember that they never consulted on anything when they were in government.
Sadiq Khan asked me about this yesterday. I should point out that I took the unusual step of briefing the Opposition on our plans 24 hours rather than one hour in advance, because I recognised the importance of talking to the legal profession, whose members are personally affected by this change. I have tried to balance the interests of the House with those who are most personally and individually affected. That is why I shared the information with the right hon. Gentleman well in advance of any norm in the House.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the concept of debates in the House. I seem to remember his telling the House that he would use a Labour Opposition day to debate this issue, because it was crucial, and the next Opposition day debate would be about legal aid. That never happened, because, in fact, the Labour party does not take this issue seriously at all.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned magistrates courts, but, as he will know, our proposals were always about Crown courts. He asked about our discussions with the Bar Council. I have had many meetings with the Bar Council and the circuit leaders over the last few months. One of the two options that we have presented today was suggested to me by the circuit leaders and echoed by the Bar Council, namely the option of replicating more closely the way in which the Crown Prosecution Service works. I have received valuable support in relation to all this from the Attorney-General and the Solicitor-General, and I hope that those two options will provide a basis for a clear discussion about the best way forward.
The right hon. Gentleman made a point about small and medium-sized enterprises. The Law Society and I are clear about the fact that we expect these changes to lead to amalgamations in the SME sector. Legal aid services are currently delivered by 1,600 firms, many of which are very small. We will continue to allow those firms to carry out their own client work, but what is most important is that I provide access to justice—to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—in every part of the country. That requires me to be sure that I have firms that are financially sustainable in every part of the country, which is why we need the contracting mechanism that I am going to introduce. It is essential to ensure that there is access to justice, and that is a key part of these proposals.
Finally, the right hon. Gentleman mentioned judicial review. We intend to produce a consultation document on changes to judicial review imminently.
As the Lord Chancellor will know, I am a member of the Bar but have no personal interest in legal aid matters.
The Lord Chancellor said that he would propose a floor below which the fees of lawyers dealing with criminal cases could not fall. Is he hopeful that his proposals will not lead to a flight of the best from the criminal Bar and the solicitors’ profession, so that we find that we are not developing the senior barristers and solicitors who go on to become Crown court judges? I am concerned about what will happen to our criminal justice system in future if we do not have the experts—the top professionals—to deal with the most difficult criminal cases.
We have modified the tapering arrangements so that the least that a junior barrister can be paid for a day in a Crown court trial is £225 plus VAT. We all want talent to be maintained in the Bar. One of the reasons that, together with the Law Society and the Bar Council, we invited Sir Bill Jeffrey to head a review of advocacy was our wish to secure a proper strategy for the future. We are arguably training more barristers today than there are places for them. The balance of the profession and the number of people in the criminal Bar are important issues, and I want someone who is independent, and working in partnership with the two sides of the profession, to establish the best way for advocacy to evolve, precisely so that what my hon. and learned Friend has described does not come about.
Only yesterday we saw how a miscarriage of justice can take place, and how someone—in this case, Barri White—can spend many years in prison for crimes he did not commit. Can the Justice Secretary give the House an absolute assurance that none of his proposals could result in further such miscarriages of justice?
The key to ensuring there is no miscarriage of justice is to make sure someone is properly legally represented. None of the proposals we have put forward have ever done anything to undermine the principle that in a trial somebody should have a properly qualified advocate of their choice to represent them, and that we must make sure that we have state of the art police and prosecution services—and my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is working hard to make sure we have a prosecution service that is as state of the art as possible. It is, of course, essential that we do everything we can to make sure there are no miscarriages of justice. Nothing in these proposals should mean that miscarriages of justice are more likely.
I welcome unreservedly the Justice Secretary’s response to the House’s concerns about the criminal justice system. What he has done in that regard has been excellent. However, I and other Members still have concerns about some of the proposals that have constitutional implications—judicial review, the residency test and so on. The Joint Committee on Human Rights is reviewing the Justice Secretary’s proposals. Will he wait until it reports before implementing the proposals with constitutional implications?
The JCHR wrote to me to ask about the timetable, but we tabled our proposals back in April and made it pretty clear what the timetable will be. Of course I will talk to that Committee, but we need to make progress on the financial side. We will shortly be carrying out a further consultation on judicial review matters. I am open to listening to all Members of the House on those elements we are consulting on, and those that require legislation will be fully debated in this House.
The legal aid budget comprises criminal legal aid and civil legal aid. What proportion of the budget goes on civil legal aid?
May I declare my interest as a lawyer and a member of the JCHR? I should also mention that I submitted a response to the consultation with some criticisms of the original proposals. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for listening to the Committee responses and for responding, and also for producing a second consultation paper to which people can respond. It seems that the threat to the high-street lawyer and the specialist firm has been lifted, which is welcome, and also that the Secretary of State understands there are still savings to be made in time and cost in the legal system, which remain a scandal. However, may I just ask him to undertake to the House that the poor, those with special needs, the young, those who do not have English as a first language and those who may not be resident here normally but who have human rights issues of national and international importance will still have a legal system they can turn to in their hour of need?
I can give my right hon. Friend that assurance. I have listened to the representations made to me by members of the JCHR and privately by members of the judiciary about some of the more specialist situations—where people have been trafficked, where there is a child aged under 12 months, and other similar cases—and we have sought to identify cases where there are individual special needs that need to be met. That is reflected in the proposed changes—to the residence test, for example. When my right hon. Friend reads the detail of what we are proposing, I hope he will see that we have made modifications designed to reflect the concerns he and others have raised.
I cautiously welcome the Lord Chancellor’s U-turn on price competitive tendering, but the devil is in the detail and I still have some reservations that this might well be PCT through the back door. What will be the criteria for obtaining a duty contract? Will it be about price or quality of service?
As I said in my statement, it will be based on quality and capacity. What has always mattered to me is that we can guarantee coverage around the country, but without some form of contractual mechanism to ensure we secure the supply of duty legal aid services at the very least, we will always risk the availability of a law firm that does legal aid in a particular area being at the whim of the market. I think that this set of compromise proposals will deliver the certainty we need, and that it will do so in a way that is much more acceptable to the legal profession. I am delighted that we have worked together with the legal profession to reach a point on which I think we can all agree and that is good for the country.
Do the changes have any implications for the military justice system, given the continuing concern both in this House and the country at the huge costs bill faced by the courageous SAS Sergeant Danny Nightingale as a result of trying to defend himself against an inappropriate prison term?
I obviously cannot comment about that specific case, but I am not aware of anything in these proposals that would have a detrimental effect on the very important processes we have in place to deal with military matters. It will be very much on my mind in the coming months to take a closer look at the whole issue of veterans and armed forces personnel and the legal profession, because I am not entirely convinced we do enough to make sure we recognise the needs of those leaving our armed forces who end up in the criminal justice system.
Of the 16,000 we received, the vast majority were single-template campaigns. We have not sought to add up pros and cons. What we have done is looked at the consultation responses in detail, and looked for sensible ideas. We have had constructive discussions with the professions who provided the most substantial responses, and we have brought forward what I think are the right proposals for the future.
I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to the weight of opinion in particular relating to PCT and the need for quality representation at the police station. In the review of criminal process, will he make sure the rules relating to disclosure of criminal evidence are looked at very carefully, as it seems to me that considerable savings can be made, particularly in very high-cost cases?
I can certainly do that. I give my hon. Friend the assurance that when Sir Bill begins his work, I will pass those comments on to him. On PCT, it is worth reminding the House that the Labour party first came up with the idea.
Rather than a compromise, this is a complete climbdown, which prompts the question of who the Secretary of State spoke to before formulating his original proposals. The devil is in the detail. Will the Secretary of State say whether he is also reviewing what minimum quality standards will apply in this new contractual arrangement he highlights?
On the first point, I know the Labour party would like to portray this as some great climbdown, but the reality is that there has been a process of consultation and negotiation. That is how we reach good agreement. I know that Labour Members never did that in government, because they do not know how to consult, negotiate and agree, but that is what we have done and we have come up with the best deal for this country.
On the latter point, we believe this is being taken forward in the right way. I know the hon. Lady wants to look at the detail. The documents are available in the House, and if she has any further questions, we will respond in detail.
I have a constituent whose children were illegally abducted by his ex-wife. In the court case to have them returned, his ex-wife had all her legal costs covered by legal aid, but my constituent as the innocent party incurred legal costs of over £140,000. Do the proposals include measures to address that sort of unfair and unbalanced situation?
I entirely understand the concerns my hon. Friend raises. I obviously cannot comment on the specific case, but what I can say is that within our legal aid system both now and in the future discretionary funding will be available for the unexpected and unusual case that might not conform to the central rules of the scheme but where there is a clear need for support to be provided.
For the avoidance of doubt, will the Secretary of State confirm that the absolute level of savings implied in today’s statement is similar to that in the initial consultation and that we will be moving our costs in this area to a similar level as that in other countries?
I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on that. In my very first contribution to this debate I said that I have to achieve the financial savings set out in our spending review settlement. I am not wedded to any exact way of doing so; if somebody has a better idea, I am happy to look very closely at it. That is what I have done, and this is the agreement we have reached, and it is just a shame that the Opposition do not understand that.
First, may I declare an interest as a practising member of the Bar? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is not sustainable in the long term if some legally aided members of the Bar are earning substantially more than the Lord Chief Justice or the Prime Minister? One simply cannot continue to have such a system.
My hon. Friend is right; we have focused the majority of our changes relating to the Bar on those at the upper end of the income scale. I know that this is difficult and that these are painful decisions for some people, but there will be a limit to what we can afford to pay someone who is living off public funds entirely or almost entirely.
While welcoming the Justice Secretary’s statement, made in the face of the enormous opposition that his original proposals generated, may I press him further on one of the earlier answers he gave? Will his new proposals still mean that not only trafficked people, but separated children, survivors of domestic violence, detainees and children under 12 months will have reduced eligibility for legal aid?
We have made exceptions to that test with our modifications relating to the residency test, particularly for very young children and victims of domestic violence and of trafficking, and in one or two other cases where we have international obligations, but the vast majority of people who come to this country have to expect to be here for a while before they can access civil legal aid. That is right and proper, and it is what the public would expect.
From a quick scan of the consultation document, and further to the Lord Chancellor’s answer to Paul Blomfield, it looks as though the Government have made substantial moves on categories of the vulnerable, which I welcome. However, the Lord Chancellor has not answered a point that a number of other Members have raised: what would happen with cases such as those of Baha Mousa, Binyam Mohamed and the Gurkhas? Will he confirm whether there is any exception for such important international cases?
Of course, cases such as the one raised regarding an inquest are covered separately. If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I am happy to give hon. Members responses to specific detailed questions, but I am not going to try in this Chamber to apply the new rules to individual cases. I do not think that would be the right thing to do.
The comment the Minister made about access to criminal legal aid for prisoners was inappropriate for somebody holding his office. Will the seriousness of a case or its merits be taken into account when people who have not been resident for 12 months are trying to access legal aid?
What we have done is set aside a certain number of areas of special case eligibility. The point about prisoners may be a point of difference between the hon. Lady and me, but we have a prison complaints system and a prison ombudsman, and I do not believe we should also provide public funding for people to go to court because they want to be transferred to a different prison. I think that the overwhelming majority of the public would be with me, rather than with her, on that.
I have listened carefully to comments that my hon. Friend has made. With the detail of the contracting, we will have more contracting areas. However, the rules we have put in place will mean that local firms on the Isle of Wight will be able to continue to provide own-client work, so there is no reason why there should not still be a good service for people on the Isle of Wight who need it. Of course, through the contracting mechanism for duty slots, we will have guarantees that duty solicitors will be available in police stations on the Isle of Wight, regardless of other circumstances.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, both on his statement and on the sensible and careful way in which he has approached this issue. The statement will deliver fair access to justice for my constituents, while also making the necessary savings. Will he confirm that the savings being made will not be taken from other areas within his Department, that they are an overall saving and that it is still the same as originally proposed?
That is a very important matter. As the House knows, I have to make some substantial cuts across the Department. I am trying to balance them sensibly and to deliver them through reforms. What this package does is enable me, in a different way, to get to the same point financially. I am grateful to those who have been involved in the negotiations for the constructive way in which they have approached this. I know it is difficult and that it will be very unwelcome to many people in the profession, but it is the best option we have available.
I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State has listened to the consultation. Devon and Cornwall were going to be treated as one area for competitive tendering, but it was just too huge. Local companies and specialist companies in my constituency and area will get a chance to deal with the work, and I am happy that he can give us that reassurance.
Absolutely. As I say, it was a genuine consultation and a genuine process of discussion. I was impressed by comments made by my hon. Friend, and by colleagues in similar constituencies, about our having to do more to try to address the issues in rural areas, and that was something I tried to take into account.
With my interest as a criminal defence duty solicitor, I recognise that this is a tough settlement. However, may I thank the Justice Secretary for doing what he said he would do—listen, engage with professionals on the front line and adapt the proposals to make them work? Given that competitive tendering has been a Labour idea and that attempts at introducing it have been made on a number of occasions, will he confirm, once and for all, that PCT is now in the bin—not the one marked “recycling” but the one marked “refuse”?
This settlement will be for four years, plus, potentially, one additional year from 2015, so it will take us into the foreseeable future. Of course, competitive tendering was Labour’s idea. I apologise to the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch
(Meg Hillier) for not making the point about the thresholds. We will agree the quality thresholds that need to be crossed by bidders with the profession, so that we get something that guarantees what we all agree is the necessary level to ensure that a quality service is provided. It is worth saying, however, that legal qualifications in this country are among the best in the world, so if someone is legally qualified, I regard them already as blue chip.
The Secretary of State has listened carefully to the consultation on the original Labour idea of competitive tendering. He has achieved the necessary savings, he has ensured that only those with a strong connection to the UK can access taxpayer-funded—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, the shadow Secretary of State has been chuntering away in a loud voice for most of this session, so may I finish without his interrupting me further? The Secretary of State has ensured that only those with a strong connection to the UK can access taxpayer-funded protection and he has looked after the interests of capable local legal firms in Gloucester. My constituents will welcome the changes. I regret only that the shadow Secretary of State is not capable of joining us in welcoming what has been announced today.
I very much welcome my hon. Friend’s support and his comments, and I am very grateful to him for them. The big problem that Labour Members have is that they were looking forward to an autumn of attacking the Government but we have a sensible set of proposals with which, I hope, most people will agree. That is Labour’s difficulty today.
I welcome the Lord Chancellor’s statement and thank him for it. His movement on choice after he appeared before the Select Committee in early July was welcome. It was logical to many of us there that changes to the PCT regime would follow. Does he agree that the revised model of tendering will result in some consolidation of smaller firms, as the market inevitably responds—that is not bad thing—ultimately leading to a more stable environment for law firms in the future?
That has been a central part of what we have agreed with the Law Society; there has been an acceptance from both of us that these changes will lead to consolidation. They will lead to bigger, but not giant, firms, which are more equipped to deal with a tough financial climate but will continue to deliver a quality service. That is what we are looking to achieve.
I hope that it is fair. The aim is to ensure that there is a degree of certainty in all of this. We have put in place a taper mechanism, which I believe will reassure younger members of the Bar about the amounts they will be paid for the work they do in trials. That seemed to me to be a sensible development in our original proposal, and I hope that it will be welcomed.
I thank the Justice Secretary for listening to the concerns of rural solicitors’ businesses and barristers across north Yorkshire, and I welcome his focus on quality. There are serious allegations of corrupt behaviour among some solicitors’ firms in Bradford, and this focus on quality has to be taken seriously.
That is very important. I want us to develop, in partnership with the professions, some clear standards for firms. We expect law firms to meet high standards, to behave without absolute propriety and to deliver a quality service. We will set standards that are exacting but appropriate as we move into the contracting phase. We want quality legal services for the future.
The Lord Chancellor seems to have forgotten the Government’s localism agenda and support for small businesses, because although he said nice things about local high street solicitors, he gave the game away in the same paragraph when he referred to duty slots being allocated on capacity. Where does that place a two-person firm of solicitors that deals only with criminal law matters?
First, it leaves that firm completely free to continue its current specialisms and its own client work. If it wishes to bid for duty slots at police stations, it is free to do so in partnership with other organisations. From my point of view, it is crucial that I know that those people who are contracted to deliver duty slots in police stations will be there in one, two, four or five years’ time. If they disappear leaving a legal aid desert, I will not be able to guarantee that people will get access to legal services in a police station and that cannot be right.