Report on legal aid debate 27/6

On Thursday 27 June 2013 the House of Commons debated the proposed cuts to legal aid contained in the recent ‘Transforming Legal Aid’ consultation paper. The transcript of the debate can be accessed here. More information about the consultation together with YLAL’s response can be accessed here.

The changes proposed in the consultation are to be brought in by secondary legislation, so the debate may be the only opportunity for MPs to scrutinise them before legislation is introduced.  Justice Secretary Chris Grayling did not attend the debate. More than 30 MPs from across the party spectrum spoke.  Almost all were in opposition to the Government’s proposals.

Much of the debate was devoted to debunking Ministry of Justice (MoJ) myths. MPs quoted evidence from a wide range of sources including the National Audit Office, non-governmental organisations such as the Public Law Project and Shelter, lawyers and the judiciary.

The debate initially centred on the ‘cost-savings’ myth. Almost all agreed that that the proposals are not going to make savings to the justice system. Conservative MPs in particular spoke about the Government’s failure to consider alternative ways of saving money.

A focal point of the debate was the proposed new market structure for criminal legal aid contracts (Price Competitive Tendering). The prospect of putting small firms out of business and creating advice deserts was troubling to MPs across the House. Ian Swales MP (LD) dismissed the ‘touching faith of the MoJ that ‘their private sector partners will ‘do the right thing’’. He pointed to the ‘horror story’ of the interpreter services privatisation as a case in point.

Removal of client choice was a recurrent issue. MPs recounted evidence received from constituents about the benefits of being able to choose their solicitor. Simon Reevell MP (Con) expressed grave concern at ‘the idea that the state will prosecute, that it will contract those who defend, and that those contractors are likely, under these proposals, to employ the defence advocate’.

There was also heavy criticism of the inaccurate Judicial Review statistics that had been relied on by the MoJ; the unconstitutionality of the residence test; and the likely negative impact on people entering the profession.

Addressing the Justice Minister Jeremy Wright at the conclusion of the debate, Sarah Teather MP (LD) said, ‘[i]f there is one thing I hope the Minister will take away and consider, it is that of the more than 30 contributions we have heard today, only one—in addition to his own—was unequivocally in favour of the proposals.’  We now await the MoJ’s response to the consultation.

A briefing prepared for the debate by YLAL can be accessed here.