Legal aid is in transformation, says minister Vara

Legal Aid minister Shailesh Vara puts the case for Legal Aid cuts

I am not going to begin by trying to claim the process of Legal Aid reform has been easy. Nor do I underestimate the challenge this presents for the legal professions. But I do strongly believe we must all strive together if we are to ensure an affordable and workable legal aid scheme.

It is no secret that our reforms have been driven by severe financial pressure. Some critics appear in denial about the scale of the challenge, not just for the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) but across the public sector. We have already examined every area of the department’s work to find savings. We have sought efficiencies in our courts, prisons, probation service and in MoJ HQ. By 2014 we will have reduced the cost of back office functions by half a billion pounds. Legal Aid has not been singled out. I will continue to work with the legal professions and others to try and make the systems you work within more efficient – both in terms of cost and time.

Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer challenged the Ministry of Justice to find more savings to keep the economic recovery on track and help hardworking families with their energy bills. The department will need to find a further £77m savings in 2014/15, and similar the following year.

I am clear that, should we deliver the savings from Legal Aid already proposed,  we will not look to lawyers’ fees for these further savings. Both the Lord Chancellor and I have repeatedly said we will work with the professions to achieve the best outcome possible. We are now considering responses to September’s consultation and I look forward to further constructive engagement.

Some have been hostile and preferred to shout from the sidelines. However, the Law Society and many legal practitioners have engaged and sought constructive alternatives. This was instrumental in persuading the Government to award litigation contracts on the basis of quality rather than price, to award unlimited own client contracts, and to give providers more time to prepare for competition.

We will consider all issues before taking final decisions, but I am encouraged by the constructive dialogue I have experienced. For example, the Law Society’s roundtable meeting with practitioners in November was extremely valuable. As the Lord Chancellor indicated then, we have been looking very carefully at the suggestions made, including amending our fixed fee proposals in the procurement model, and also at how we ensure consortia can play an active role.

We all need to be prepared for change. We have clearly demonstrated that this Government is listening. When practitioners and their representative bodies have put workable alternatives to us, we have considered them and sought to include them where possible. However, the financial challenge will not just disappear. We still need to make real cash savings. Without price competition, there is no alternative to some form of fee cut. We recognise legal practitioners will be reluctant to see change, but the more realistic have tempered their opposition with a pragmatic understanding that this is as unavoidable as it is undesirable.

These are challenging times, and change is inevitable. But if we work together, we can achieve a sustainable solution for lawyers, delivering savings for the taxpayer, and a justice system which remains the envy of the world.

By Legal Aid minister Shailesh Vara