MOJ Wastes £411,000 on Legal Aid U-Turn

The amount of money wasted on the government’s controversial and ultimately abandoned attempts to introduce legal aid contract reforms has been revealed. In total, the government wasted more than £411,000 on the endeavour.

The proposed measures, which would have introduced two-tier contracts and competitive tendering to the criminal legal aid system, where originally announced by Gove’s predecessor as Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. Grayling, who has been described as one of the most controversial and unpopular Justice Secretaries of recent times, introduced a number of poorly-received measures which have later been scrapped by his successor. The abandonment of the legal aid contract reforms represented the fifth time that Gove had gone back on one of Grayling’s plans.

Under the scheme, 527 duty contracts were to be made available for firms who wished to provide criminal legal aid services, and firms across the country would have been required to bid competitively for the right to hold one of these contracts. Those that lost out could have faced a significant drop in incoming workload and income.

Whilst a number of recent reforms, particularly in relation to legal aid, have proved unpopular, the response to the proposed contracting system from the legal sector was particularly strong. Some top lawyers said that criminal law was set to become a “futureless profession” under the new regime, there were multiple claims of bad practice, and a number of formal legal challenges were launched against the government in an attempt to stop the reforms. In January, 14 months into the procurement process for the new contracts, Gove announced that the new system would not be put into operation after all. At the time of this announcement, the government was fighting a judicial challenge over the changes from the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, as well as roughly 100 separate claims from law firms across the country.

Some of the costs associated with the attempt to bring about these reforms have been revealed under the Freedom of Information Act, and total more than £411,000. This includes £271,574 spend on agency staff in association with the reforms, £125,933 on legal support regarding the procurement process, and £13,565 in external legal assistance with the drafting of the contracts. This makes for a total cost of £411,072.

This figure does not include the amount spent on defending the proposals from the wave of legal challenges that were made. This information was included in the Freedom of Information Request made by the press to the government, but the Ministry of Justice said that, while it does have the information, “we believe that releasing the information would be likely to prejudice both the administration of justice as well as the department’s commercial interests.”

Tribunal Fees Prove Detrimental to Number of Claims

The controversial introduction of the new tribunal fees enforced in July have amounted to a plummeting in employment tribunal claims in the final quarter of 2013. The final quarter of 2013 showed that the number of claims made were 9,801 which represents a 70% fall compared with the final quarter in 2012 and comparing to the third quarter of the previous year (2013) there was a similar 75% reduction. These figures were anticipated by many professionals and academics which forecasted that there would be a major slump in employment tribunal claims as a result of the increased cost of legal action which was described as a move aimed to reduce the burden from those employees lower in the pecking order.

The fees which were introduced by the government in July meant that it now costs £250 to issue a claim which is up from £160, depending on the type of claim, with further hearing fees of between £230 and £950. The head of employment at London company Kingsley Napley, Richard Fox who is also chairman of the Employment Lawyers Tribunal stated “it is now clear that many employees have been deterred from bringing tribunal claims since fees were introduced last year”. He believes that although this door is now shut for many employees as a means to resolve their employment troubles, other options will soon open such as “by turning to trade unions to fight their corner”.

Unison the trade union last month sought to challenge the legality of the introduction of the new tribunal fees. Their legal action was subsequently dismissed by the High Court. In his judgment in the case of Unison v Lord Chancellor Mr Justice Irwin and Lord Justice Moses stated that the trade union’s case was premature and stated that at this stage there was a lack of concrete evidence which is needed to overturn the regime.

The trade union which was unhappy with the decision reached stated their intention to take their case further by lodging an appeal in the Court of Appeal. They want the court to reconsider the facts and especially the argument put forward that the fees will have a much more disproportionate effect on women than initially projected. The figures were labelled as ‘shocking’ according to the trade union’s general secretary, Dave Prentis. He stated that the negative effect which the fees for the tribunal system brought is no “blatantly obvious”. He says that their introduction is simply unfair and that they should be reversed to the old system. The argument put forward by the general secretary is that money should be no obstruction to justice whether that be for employment of accident claims solicitors, and that it is atrocious that this is the effect which the government is bringing on many workers across the country wishing to seek remedies through the tribunal system.