Dear Lord Chancellor,
Tomorrow the Court of Appeal deliver their judgment on the appeal brought by solicitors in respect of the Judicial Review into the Dual Contract process. The Dual Contract process, as you know, is the mechanism by which the MoJ intend to “consolidate” the market of providers of Legal Services remunerated by Legal Aid. The MoJ recognise that the only way that solicitors can survive after your next round of cuts is to reduce the number of solicitors that can do the work and therefore increase the volume of work done by each firm that survives. In order to stop solicitors going out of business you are having to make sure that solicitors go out of business.
Now I am not writing this to harangue you about fee cuts or your idealogical restrictions on access to justice. I admit that I have, from time to time, mocked you, ridiculed you and probably been insulting towards you. I have criticised what you have done and your reasons for doing so.
However this is not the time or the place for such expressions of anger, derision or disagreement. This is the time to ask you, no, to implore you to take the next step appropriately, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s hearing.
If the court rules in your favour then the tender process can re-start and we are set on a course that could see hundreds of firms disappear from the High Street. The legal landscape will be changed forever. It is exactly the sort of change that is very difficult to reverse. I urge caution upon you. DO NOT RESTART THE PROCESS.
We are 48 days away from a General Election. Any combination of things may happen. There has never been more uncertainty about the outcome of a General Election with minority governments, coalitions, a Labour administration or a Conservative administration all a real possibility. You may or not be in power. You may or may not be Lord Chancellor.
Forget purdah. Forget the niceties and conventions of the Civil Service. DO NOT TAKE THIS STEP THAT WILL IRREVOCABLY CHANGE THE JUSTICE SYSTEM. That is the only sensible, prudent, statesmanlike thing to do. Delaying now is not going to be a sign of weakness. It is not going to blow open the budget or the deficit.
And if the solicitors win? Just pause. Do not waste money on appeals. Do not rush through a false consultation. Pause. Think. Reflect.
Let me remind you of this
The Ministry does not know, and has shown little interest in, the knock-on costs of its reforms across the wider public sector as a result of increased physical and mental health problems caused by the inability to access advice to resolve legal problems.
It therefore has no idea whether the projected £300 million spending reduction in its own budget is outweighed by additional costs elsewhere. It does not understand the link between the price it pays for legal aid and the quality of advice being given. In short, there is not a lot the Ministry does know.
Therefore, while the Ministry is on track to make a significant and rapid reduction in the cost of legal aid, it is far from clear that these savings represent value for money.
It needs to get on and urgently review the impact of its reforms and, where necessary, act to address issues such as cost-shifting and people struggling to access justice.
Those are the words of Margaret Hodge from the Public Accounts Committee concerning the errors made in recent times by your department and the civil legal aid reforms. It serves as a timely reminder of the longstanding social costs of ill-thought out reform. It shows that savings do not always equal value. It tells you what many of us have said all along – do not diminish the quality of advice and representation as that causes damage.
You may not believe we are right. You may think you have no choice other than to do what you intend to do. But a pause now, a pause before devastation ensues, may just about be the best decision you ever take.