During another stressful defense of his radical proposals to slash Legal Aid in England and Wales, the minister Chris Grayling was accused of having "no regard" for expert views at the Justice Committee today.
MPs challenged Grayling about criticism from the country's leading judge. In a speech last night Lord Neuberger, the President of the Supreme Court, said: “the courts have no more important function than that of protecting citizens from the abuses and excesses of the executive”.
Neuberger raised grave concerns about the government's proposed cuts.
"If a person with a potential claim cannot get legal aid, there are two possible consequences. The first is that the claim is dropped: that is a rank denial of justice and a blot on the rule of law. The second is that the claim is pursued, in which case it will be pursued inefficiently, and will take up much more of the court staff's time and of the judge's time in and out of court."
He said: "that means greater costs for the court system, and delay for other litigants."
Justice committee member Elfyn Llwyd (Plaid Cymru) said he had never known a judge express such strong opposition to a government proposal. The MP for Dwyfor Meirionnydd asked the minister: "Have you no regard for experts in the field?"
Grayling replied: "I would be surprised if the president of the Supreme Court was saying legal aid cutbacks are a good thing."
The minister was told that vulnerable people including victims of domestic violence would be denied access to justice by his proposals.
Grayling started his evidence by saying that just 5,000 of the 16,000 responses to his first consultation were individual responses, the rest being pro forma. He had previously indicated that he would disregard multiple responses.
He said: “I can't reduce the Ministry’s budget by a third without impacting on Legal Aid." Market consolidation would enable firms working with legal aid clients to continue doing so with reduced fees. He further claimed that lawyers who rejected his proposal for Price Competitive Tendering (PCT), had told him: “just cut our fees”.
Grayling said he was continuing to look at the impact of his Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2013 (LASPO). He said no detailed statistics were available on a rise in Litigants in Person since the Act's introduction. The closure of Birmingham Law Centre, he claimed, was due to pre-existing problems, not legal aid cuts.
Concerns were raised over training of future lawyers. Grayling said that there were too many pupillage candidates and an oversupply of lawyers. He said it was not his place to tell lawyers how to address this issue.
Elfyn Llwyd MP accused Grayling of misleading the Committee in relation to the legal aid spend. Grayling said: "That has fallen by 10 per cent so far since 2010. Over the period between 2010 and 2015/16, we will have reduced the spend on legal aid roughly in line with the budget of the department. We're not misleading anyone, we're telling you the truth.”
Grayling concluded: “I have given an assurance that if people come up with alternatives, I will look at them, but no-one has.”
Bill Waddington, Chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, swiftly tweeted that his association's response is full of suggestions.
We are currently in the second period of consultation, which ends on 1 November. The Coalition government proposes to:
- • Destroy the current model whereby the Ministry of Justice purchases legal services from 1,400 local providers, and issue vast contracts to a much smaller number of bidders. Tesco, G4S and Stobart are poised to move in.
- • Pay a flat fee regardless of plea. (A guilty plea promises fatter margins).
- • Impose a 12 month residence test for civil Legal Aid. (Babies in care proceedings would lose legal representation).
- • Pay for legal work on applications for judicial review only in cases where the application succeeds.
Some of the original proposals have been killed off. In July Grayling abandoned his plan to deprive defendants of their choice of solicitor.
On 4 September, in a debate in Westminster Hall that Grayling failed to attend, MPs decried the remaining proposals. The next day he scrapped plans to award criminal legal aid contracts to the lowest bidder. He made that announcement through an exclusive interview behind The Times paywall. Parliament heard of it later.
In August, in answer to an FOI request, the Ministry of Justice said there were 35 people on its legal aid policy team. Only one of them was legally qualified.