Fears for the future of our justice system

Chris Pye-Smith of Bird & Co in Castlegate, Grantham.
Chris Pye-Smith of Bird & Co in Castlegate, Grantham.
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Solicitors across the country are in uproar over Government plans to make radical changes to Legal Aid in the United Kingdom.

The Ministry of Justice plans to bring in “Price Competitive Tendering” (PCT) which could have a big impact on people needing legal representation, criminal law firms and the administration of justice as a whole.

So we spoke to Chris Pye-Smith, a solicitor with Grantham firm Bird & Co, to discuss the potential impact.

Q) What will the impact of PCT be for the man in the street?

A) The proposals will reduce the number of suppliers nationally from 1,600 to 400, so impacting choice. In Lincolnshire there are currently around 13 firms providing criminal Legal Aid but under these proposals there will only be four and those four may not be any of the current 13. They may not even be firms of solicitors - they may be organisations like G4S. Each supplier will get allocated a quarter of the work load and if you are a person who gets allocated a solicitor and you don’t like them or you are not happy with the quality you will not be able to change. The next issue under threat is quality. We provide as good a service as we possibly can but if your client is stuck with you, what’s the incentive to provide that quality service? If your supplier is a large corporation whose obligation is to its shareholders, they are going to be interested in how they make money from this contract, not how to supply the best service. We expect the quality to fall to very low levels if these proposals are brought in.

Q) If the quality of legal representation falls would that increase the likelihood of a miscarriage of justice?

A) This will come about because of the reduction in quality and because there is a proposal to change the payment structure so suppliers get paid the same whether their client pleads guilty or not guilty. The preparation of trials is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive business. There is a danger that there will be an incentive to get a guilty plea because it will be too expensive to defend. At the moment good solicitors do what needs to be done to properly defend a case but under these proposals the financial incentive may cause, certainly the large corporations, to cut corners. We as solicitors believe you should provide the best quality you possibly can every time. I dread to think what the quality level is going to be like if this goes ahead.

Q) What impact could the proposals have on a fairly small firm like yourselves?

A) As part of PCT the suppliers have got to bid with a reduction in rates of pay of 17.5 per cent. We know you cannot absorb another 17.5 per cent cut.

We could not bid in the way it is proposed for one of the contracts. If you don’t bid you don’t get a contract, if you don’t get a contract you can’t do criminal Legal Aid so the department closes - which means probably 15 people will lose their employment. So there is no future for us if this goes ahead but it is not us we are worried about. This is bad for the public and the country. There seems to be this idea the justice system needs to be as cheap as possible whereas I think we should aim to have the best justice system in the world - not just the cheapest.