Letter: Reform of criminal legal aid is no threat to justice

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From the Lord Chancellor: Last week, the Independent on Sunday said that lawyers were "stunned" by my proposals to reform criminal legal aid. I find that surprising. I announced in October 1997 that I see contracting with lawyers in private practice as the way forward for publicly funded criminal cases, as well as for civil cases. Your story said, accurately, that criminal legal aid cost the taxpayer pounds 733m last year. Costs have gone up by 44 per cent in five years while the number of cases dealt with has only gone up by 10 per cent. And the increases in expenditure are not matched by evidence of improved services to defendants or value for money for taxpayers.

The Government's duty is to make sure that public money is spent effectively. I want to ensure that people suspected of or charged with criminal offences can be confident of a good-quality service from lawyers paid at public expense while the taxpayer gets value for money. At present, any formally qualified lawyer can do criminal legal aid work and then claim fees according to the work done and the time spent. This does not guarantee a quality service for defendants or value for money for the taxpayer.

The proposed Criminal Defence Service will only give contracts for publicly funded work to lawyers of proven quality. This does not negate the principle that a defendant can choose his own lawyer. In most cases, suspects or defendants will be able to choose any lawyer who has a contract with the CDS. Fixed-price contracts will be an incentive to efficiency. Competition for contracts will maintain quality of service.

Your story made much of US-style public defenders. The Government has no plans to move towards a wholesale public defender service. We do not exclude the possibility of some directly employed lawyers having a part in future criminal defence services. To those who argue that state salary and independence are incompatible, I would point to the judges. They are paid from state funds; their independence is beyond question.

Your editorial expressed concerns for a defendant's right to a fair trial and the expectation of "equality of arms". The Government has incorporated the European Convention of Human Rights, which embodies both concepts, into domestic legislation through the Human Rights Act. Criminal defence services will have to comply fully.

My proposals are not a threat to either the independence of lawyers or the rights of defendants. They are not a threat to justice. They are a means of guaranteeing good quality, publicly funded criminal defence services, provided by lawyers whose fundamental duties are to their clients and the court and at a price the taxpayer can afford.