I am grateful to Steve McCabe for calling this debate, and I appreciate the passion with which he presented his case. I should also put on the record my appreciation for the information that he sent me before the debate, so that I could consider the points he proposed to make.
I will make some general remarks, and then move on to the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, but I note at the outset that an entirely independent body, the PHSO, has rejected Mr Majid’s case. I hear what the hon. Gentleman says in criticism of that body, but it is worth noting that it is entirely independent of the LSC and of the Government more widely.
I have obviously listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman said. I hope that he agrees that we should be very proud of our legal system: it is a valuable contributor to our society, and the Government recognise that legal aid is a vital component of the system. I am well aware of the important role that duty solicitors, such as his constituent, play in the criminal justice system.
I have always made it clear that defence lawyers are central to the criminal justice system. Throughout this year, I have taken their views on how to make the system more efficient and on what we can do to help them work more efficiently. Today, there are about 6,500 duty solicitors—qualified professionals who can offer advice and assistance to those who, without their own lawyer, are being questioned by the police or facing charges before the courts. The system ensures that all eligible people have access to legal advice from suitably qualified legal representatives, whose role is crucial to ensuring that the criminal justice system can operate efficiently.
Last year alone, there were 734,000 acts of assistance to people being questioned by the police, at a cost of £160 million to the taxpayer. A similar scheme for solicitors in the magistrates court operated at a cost of almost £22 million, providing help to individuals in courts across England and Wales. The Legal Aid Agency—as the hon. Gentleman correctly said, that is what the Legal Services Commission has become—has a statutory responsibility to run and maintain both the police station and the magistrates court duty solicitor schemes in England and Wales, which it does by entering into contracts with firms of solicitors. The last tender process was for the 2010 standard crime contract, with contracts starting on
The case made by the hon. Gentleman is that his constituent raised a concern with him about how the then LSC dealt with his complaint regarding the allocation of duty solicitor slots in the summer of 2010. From his contribution, I can appreciate that the period in question and since has been extremely distressing for his constituent. What I can usefully do now is explain a little more about how the process works so that we can understand more about how the issue arose in the first place.
The first point on which to be clear, and this directly addresses one of the hon. Gentleman’s points, is that contracts are not awarded to individual duty solicitors, but to legal aid firms. The proportion of slots that each organisation receives is determined by the number of duty solicitors that it has registered with the LAA, formerly the LSC. The allocation of slots is typically refreshed every six months, and organisations are required to submit the necessary forms to demonstrate how many duty solicitors they employ. A deadline is set to ensure fair and equal treatment for all the firms involved.