Justice Secretary Chris Grayling in U-turn: Defendants on legal aid will still be able to choose their solicitor

 

Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, made a surprise U-turn on Monday night over his controversial plan to deny defendants on legal aid the right to choose their solicitor.

After the proposal ran into widespread opposition from the legal profession, he dropped this key plank changes designed to shave £220m a year from the legal aid budget. The announcement came as he prepared for a grilling on the proposals by the Commons Justice Select Committee on Wednesday.

It is believed Mr Grayling was influenced by strong criticism of his plan in a Commons debate last Thursday by Tory MPs, who argued that the state choosing a defendant’s lawyer would be un-Conservative. The critics included David Davis, the former shadow Home Secretary. Dominic Grieve, the Attorney General, and Nick Clegg, the Deputy Prime Minister, also hinted that they had doubts about the shake-up.

Allies insisted that Mr Grayling had been planning a rethink for some time and had always been flexible about how his plans to bring competitive tendering for legal aid contracts is implemented. They said “client choice” had never been a specific objective, only one possible option.

His climbdown will not affect the scale of his budget cuts but will safeguard a long-standing tradition in criminal trials. Both barristers and solicitors argued that a defendant's ability to choose a solicitor is the best way to preserve high-quality representation.

Mr Grayling, who acknowledged  that he had failed to carry the legal profession with him, said on Monday night: “Removing the choice of solicitor for clients receiving criminal legal aid was only proposed in order to guarantee lawyers had enough business to make contracts viable. It is clear the profession regards client choice as important and so I expect to make changes that allow a choice of solicitor in the future. Any future scheme for criminal legal aid must guarantee that quality legal advice and representation is available, but we still need to make significant savings.”

The Justice Secretary welcomed  the Law Society’s recognition of the need for savings and said the Government was discussing with it how to achieve  “a managed market consolidation” .

As recently as last month,  Mr Grayling argued: “I don't believe that most people who find themselves in our criminal justice system are great connoisseurs of legal skills. We know the people in our prisons and who come into our courts often come from the most difficult and challenged backgrounds."

Sadiq Khan, the shadow Justice Secretary, described  Mr Grayling’s move as “a humiliating climbdown.”  He said: “The Government's half-baked legal aid plans are starting to unravel. If we are to maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system, avoid needless miscarriages of justice and bring about the efficiencies our justice system needs, the government must urgently dump their proposals for legal aid and work with us, victims' groups and other experts to bring about changes that will save money and improve our justice system."

Lucy Scott-Moncrieff, president of the Law Society, welcomed the announcement. She said: "We have composed a properly evidenced and considered alternative approach, which would shelve price-led competitive tendering, retain the important principle of clients being able to choose their solicitor and in doing so, maintain strong incentives for sufficient quantity and high quality of legal advice and representation. I won't pretend that our alternative, if adopted, will result in flags waving in every solicitor firm – it is in many respects the least worse solution."

Maura McGowan QC, chairman of the Bar, said: "We welcome the Government's change of heart on this, but we hope it is also listening to the many voices which are clear that price competitive tendering in any form is not a suitable mechanism for allocating legal aid contracts. Legal aid contracts should not just go to the bidders who are willing to do the work for the lowest price."

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