ePolitix.com speaks to the chairman of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), Sir Bill Callaghan, about legal aid reform.
Question: Can you tell us a little bit about the work of the Legal Services Commission (LSC)?
Sir Bill Callaghan: The Legal Services Commission provides legal aid for representation, advice and information for people with legal problems in England and Wales. We help more than two million people each year at a cost of over £2bn. Of that sum, £1.1bn is spent on criminal legal aid, £900m on civil help, £80m on immigration and asylum matters and £115m on our own administration. We employ 1,700 staff.
Question: The government and LSC have embarked on a programme for transforming the legal aid system. Why is there a need to reform the existing legal aid system and what are the main objectives of the Way Ahead reform programme?
Sir Bill Callaghan: The Carter review recommended moving to a market-based approach to legal aid based on quality and value for money for the taxpayer. We must move to a system that pays for services delivered for clients rather than hours worked. We need to make sure that legal aid remains available to those who need it.
To meet this challenge, the LSC's reform programme will create a sustainable legal aid scheme that is value for money for the taxpayer and provides access to quality legal advice for clients. The reform programme will create a network of providers who deliver quality, value for money and client focused services.
Question: How are the reforms impacting on legal practitioners?
Sir Bill Callaghan: In one sense it is too early to say as we are still in the early stages of the reform programme, but the evidence so far is that there is no shortage of law firms willing to bid for work in the fixed and graduated fee schemes we have introduced for both criminal and civil work.
As we move towards our goal of becoming a commissioning organisation, we will shape the market to ensure that the needs of legal aid recipients are met.
For example, our recent consultative document on new contracts for civil work specifies that we are looking for providers to be able to offer a more integrated service offering the full range and breadth of civil legal aid services.
This reflects LSC's research that shows that people need help on a number of topics and want a joined-up solution. Our approach could well lead to specialist law firms forming consortia.
Question: What benefits will these reforms have for defendants? How would you respond to those who say that there are risks over access to justice for the most vulnerable people?
Sir Bill Callaghan: Defendants in criminal cases and those seeking legal aid and advice on the civil side will continue to benefit from our high quality approach. All firms delivering legal aid and advice have to meet a quality standard (there is no quality standard for privately funded work) and we have set the quality standard higher for our telephone advice services which are ensuring that more people than ever have access to justice.
Question: Lord Carter's review put forward proposals for a competitive, market-based system for legal aid procurement. Why was there a need to modernise the procurement of legal aid?
Sir Bill Callaghan: A competitive market will help ensure the efficient delivery of legal services and this will benefit both law firms and the consumer alike. But we are looking to deliver best value tendering, not competition on the lowest possible price.
By ensuring that quality remains paramount within a competitive tendering system, we will deliver good value for the taxpayer and arrive at a price for legal aid that is sustainable and allows law firms to plan ahead with certainty.
Question: What impact will the current economic crisis have on future legal aid funding?
Sir Bill Callaghan: Over the last quarter of a century there has been a substantial increase in legal aid spending in real terms, averaging 5.7 per cent per annum. Ministers have already made clear that this growth could not be sustained and we are planning to operate on the basis of a flat cash settlement in the next spending round while making substantial savings in our own administrative budget in this round. Both the LSC and legal aid providers will need to become more efficient to meet this challenge.
Question: There has been a rise in repossessions in the past year as a result of the credit crunch. What steps has the LSC taken to assist those with housing and debt problems?
Sir Bill Callaghan: We haven't as yet seen a significant increase in demand for services, but we continue to identify ways we can expand services and help more people.
For instance, we fund 94 Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes. From November 17, we are introducing an additional 18 schemes, with the Department for Communities and Local Government funding another 60 schemes. These are emergency schemes so that anyone in danger of losing their home or having property repossessed can get free legal advice and representation in court, on the day of their hearing, regardless of their financial circumstances.
In June, we announced an extra £10m funding for civil legal aid, available as a result of ongoing efficiencies in the legal aid system. This will buy at least 40,000 face-to-face civil legal aid cases.
Question: The Ministry of Justice and the LSC are continuing to develop partnership arrangements with local authorities and other local services that provide legal information. Why is the role of local organisations so important in legal aid provisions?
Sir Bill Callaghan: Local bodies are best placed to know what works best in their localities. The development of Community Local Advice Centres and Networks is an exciting innovation.
The LSC and the relevant local authorities are developing these centres and networks to provide an integrated one-stop shop giving easy access to integrated services. Community Legal Advice centres are already operating in Gateshead, Portsmouth, Leicester, Derby and Hull. I look forward to more centres starting soon.
Question: Why is legal aid fundamental to a fair society?
Sir Bill Callaghan: Access to justice is a fundamental to a fair society. That means that everyone in this country must be able to exercise the rights that have been legislated in their name by Parliament.
Journalists can meet Sir Bill Callaghan at a legal aid reception to discuss these issues, on Tuesday November 18.
Find out more by visiting the LSC's stakeholder page.