Cuts to legal aid fees for duty criminal solicitors who represent suspects in police stations and magistrates courts are to be suspended, Michael Gove, the justice secretary, has announced in the department’s latest policy U-turn.
As well as surrendering the 8.75% fee cut, a controversial contract-tendering procedure which would restrict the number of law firms permitted to do duty legal work is also to be abandoned, the Ministry of Justice confirmed.
Both highly unpopular reforms, which aimed at consolidating the profession and effectively forcing many solicitors’ firms to merge or close, were initiated by Chris Grayling, the previous justice secretary.
Gove has already reversed many of Grayling’s money saving initiatives, including the ban on prisoners receiving books from their families and the equally detested courts charge, a mandatory payment of up to £1,200 imposed on all convicted defendants.
Announcing the about-turn in a Commons written ministerial statement, Gove pointed out that over the last parliament annual spending on legal aid was reduced from £2.4bn to £1.6bn.
Law firms feared that awarding a limited number of “dual contracts” – under which solicitors take on duty legal aid work at police stations and magistrates courts as well as represent their own clients – would lead to a less diverse and competitive market.
Steve Hynes, director of the Legal Action Group, said: “In its planning and execution the MoJ has demonstrated shocking incompetence with this tender exercise. The criminal justice system would be best served by a period of reflection and above all consultation by the justice secretary, rather than rushing to take decisions which could be as equally ill fated.”
Matt Foot, co‐founder of the Justice Alliance, said: “The government’s arrogance to ignore virtually the whole profession and attack access to justice in this cavalier way has been stopped by us standing together. Our packed out rally showed the widespread support for proper legal aid to stop miscarriages and fight injustice, such as that experienced by the victims of the so called ‘spy cops’, or the Stephen Lawrence family.”