Peter Aldous urges Government to reconsider proposals for criminal Legal Aid reform

Waveney MP Peter Aldous last week called for the Government to reconsider proposals for criminal Legal Aid reform.


Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Brent Central (Sarah Teather) for securing this debate. I shall concentrate mainly on the proposals relating to price competitive tendering. My concern is that these are not suitable for a county such as Suffolk, which covers a large geographical area, much of it rural in nature. Suffolk has three principal urban centres: Ipswich, Bury St Edmunds and Lowestoft, the latter being the principal town in my constituency. All are some distance from each other.

Having lived in Suffolk my whole life and having worked there as a chartered surveyor for many years, I do not believe that it is practical for a firm of solicitors based in one of the three towns to provide a good service across the whole county. If the proposals are implemented in their current form, I fear it could result in significant parts of the county being left without ready access to good legal advice. One would, in effect, be creating advice deserts, as many Members have said.

This would be bad for my constituents and bad for those towns and market towns where the presence of solicitors on the high street, often long-established family firms or partnerships, could be put at risk. There is a need for their continued presence. Large multi-discipline firms have their place, but we do not want a system that encourages all solicitors to locate on business parks, often inaccessible to public transport, on the edge of remote urban centres. My worry is that the proposals could eradicate those small legal firms who best know their clients, and this would be bad for community justice. These high street firms are not legal fat cats gorging on legal aid.

I do not like the idea of a state-imposed system of providing criminal legal aid, rather than that of allowing a market to develop organically. I shall make three observations to highlight my concerns.

First, I do not believe that four firms can provide comprehensive coverage across the whole of Suffolk. Rather than applying the same straitjacket to each of the 42 criminal justice service areas, would it not be more appropriate to look more closely at the make-up of each area and come up with a system that takes account of such features as rural sparsity and the location of the main police stations, police investigation centres and local courts?

Secondly, I am concerned that requiring firms to expand substantially to cover such large procurement areas could mean that solicitors spend most of their time sitting in their cars driving to courts and police stations. In Suffolk, Lowestoft is 45 miles from Ipswich and 54 miles from Bury St Edmunds. Is it realistic to reduce automatically by 17.5% fees that have been pegged back in any case for many years, and then expect a firm in, say, Ipswich to provide a comprehensive and good service in Lowestoft? Will such firms have a proper and full understanding of the needs, challenges and concerns of people in the Waveney area? Is it practical for solicitors to drive an hour through the night to attend at police stations? Driving up and down the A12 or along the A143 are not the easiest journeys at the best of times.

Thirdly, it has been suggested that one way in which solicitors can improve their productivity is to make greater use of paralegals. That would involve those who are not fully qualified and have lower hourly charge-out fees carrying out more routine work. Such an approach may well be practical in other legal fields where there are fewer legal obligations, but not in criminal legal aid, which is fundamentally different from other legal work.

We all must accept that savings have to be found. To find them, one must adopt a strategic approach, looking at the whole criminal justice process, from the police station through to the courtroom. I would be grateful for an update from the Minister on whether the Government will increase magistrates’ custodial sentencing powers from six months to 12 months, which will enable justice to be delivered more efficiently and quickly by magistrates who live in, and have a good understanding of, the communities they serve, and, according to my understanding, would produce significant savings of up to £40 million a year.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): On that point, I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) said about the Crown Prosecution Service not being up to the job. Surely more savings could be made there.

Peter Aldous: To find savings, we should look across the whole criminal process, from the police station on the first night through to the courts, whether magistrates courts, which I believe should have a bigger role, or the Crown court. We must look at the CPS as well, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden, who is not in his place, made a very good point about that.

The Secretary of State should look again at the proposals for price competitive tendering. There is a need for a more local approach that takes account of the individual features and characteristics of different areas and communities, an approach that enables small and medium-sized firms of solicitors to have a sustainable and viable future, and an approach that provides local communities with access to legal advice and support from professionals who have local knowledge of the particular problems and challenges in their area.

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Peter holds regular surgeries at various locations in the constituency. Please call 01502 586568 to make an appointment.

Next Surgeries - 2018: 
Beccles, Saturday 14th April
Lowestoft, Wednesday 30th May


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