Legal Aid procurement changes put on hold – the toughest spend category ever? (Part 1)

Major announcements were slipped out last week (a written statement from the Minister, Ken Clarke),  about the UK’s Legal Aid scheme and the body that runs it, the Legal Services Commission (LSC).  The plans to change scope and provision of legal aid,  and to introduce competitive tendering for Legal Aid providers, have been kicked into touch till at least 2013 – and I’d be very surprised if major changes were made within 18 months of the next election, so that’s probably it now for major reform, till 2015 at least.

“...we will consult in autumn 2013 on introducing competition for criminal defence work, with a view to extending it to civil and family work at a later date.”

So assuming the budget cuts are still going to be realised, presumably the rates paid to providers will simply be cut. The legal firms who have opposed more competitive procurement processes may regret it as the rates inexorably decline. And the conversion of the LSC to Agency status has also been delayed.

“Abolition of the Legal Services Commission and introduction of a mandatory "telephone gateway", through which claimants will have to obtain civil legal aid advice, have also been put back to April 2013.

I was a Commissioner (non-executive director in effect, but with some wider responsibility for promoting the cause of Legal Aid) from 2007-10 at the LSC, resigning shortly before the last election.  I was recruited because they wanted someone who had procurement / commercial experience to advise as they moved towards a more competitive market approach. It was a very interesting three years; enjoyable to begin with but increasingly frustrating as procurement strategies and options repeatedly got caught up in both Politics with a big “P” and organisational politics (between the LSC and the parent Department – the relationship between LSC, the Ministry of Justice and indeed Ministers got pretty bad before I left).

LSC also (with my support) recruited Hugh Barrett as a Board level commercial director in late 2008. That meant they needed my input less anyway. I did tell him when he joined that it was the most difficult procurement role I’d ever seen – he can’t say he wasn’t warned!

Barrett has done a sterling job trying to work his way through the minefield in my opinion, as has the long-suffering Chair, Bill Callaghan. But I’m not at all surprised that the proposed changes have been kicked into the long grass – they probably just fall into the “too difficult for not enough gain” territory. I’m not sure it is related to the brave new world of procurement, as Gordon Murray suggested in his blog here. Rather it may simply be Ken Clarke taking a pragmatic approach to a very difficult problem!

The delay in moving to Agency status is almost more annoying in my opinion – a lot of money has been wasted working on that option, and it all started really because of the bad blood between LSC and the Ministry, rather than for any good business reason. NDPD, Agency.. does it really matter?  I do wonder whether the change is also related to the departure of Carolyn Downs, who was in MoJ then became CEO of the LSC and was a proponent of Agency status. She left recently to become the Chief Executive of the Local Government Association.

But, politics apart, it did strike me that “Legal Aid Services” is the most difficult procurement spend category I’ve ever seen. So I’ve got a lot of sympathy with the LSC team – and there are a lot of god people there – who must feel that they’ve been marched up and down a few large hills over the last few years. We’ll get into the reasons why it is just so tough in part 2 when we look in more detail at the ‘technical’ category issues. And you never know, perhaps one of our readers will come up with the genius idea that solves the problems!

Voices (2)

  1. Chopstick:

    Dan – It’s a good point and many people have raised it before. The last government / LSC set up a trial called the Public Defender Service. Unfortunately it cost substantially more per case than using independent solicitors and barristers.

  2. Dan:

    Scrap legal aid entirely, and employ the lawyers directly through a ‘Crown Defenders Service’, a counterpart to the Prosecution Service

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