UK

Legal aid reforms: Call to reveal cost of proposals rejected

Lawyers protesting over proposed changes to the criminal justice system
Image caption Lawyers staged protests over proposed changes to the criminal justice system

Calls to reveal how much public money was spent on abandoned proposals to reform legal aid have been rejected by a justice minister.

Shailesh Vara said publishing the costs would be a "waste of time and effort".

He said the government wanted to "move ahead" after Justice Secretary Michael Gove scrapped his predecessor's proposals to overhaul the system.

Labour has called on the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to refer itself to the National Audit Office over the issue.

It also demanded an apology to those adversely affected.

Investigation call

Plans to slash the number of law firms allowed to do criminal legal aid work at police stations and magistrates' courts have been dropped, while an 8.75% cut to legal aid fees lawyers earn has been suspended for a year.

Mr Gove said the MoJ had faced too many legal challenges over the plans - it faced 99 separate legal actions over the proposals.

Lawyers had claimed the reforms could damage quality and access to justice.

The proposed cuts - drawn up by former Justice Secretary Chris Grayling - would have reduced the number of solicitor firms awarded "duty contracts" by about two-thirds from 1,600 to 527.

Asking an urgent question in the House of Commons on Friday, shadow justice minister Andy Slaughter said the abandoned plans were "an appalling use of taxpayers' money" that had presented an existential threat to the legal system.

He added: "How much public money and civil service time has been spent on the aborted tendering processes, the court cases and the consultations in the past three years?

"Will you refer your own department to the National Audit Office so it can be independently investigated? Will you apologise to the firms which have closed, laid off staff, or cut salaries faced with losing contracts?"

'Welcomed by profession'

Mr Vara replied that "all shades of government... if they listen to people and if they feel a decision needs to be changed then they do make that change".

He added: "I don't recall previous governments wasting time and effort trying to calculate measures when they have made a change of direction.

"So as far as we're concerned this is a decision that's been welcomed by the profession, we're pleased about that, we want to look forward and move ahead."

Mr Gove's announcements were the latest in a series of reversals of policies brought in by his predecessor.

He pulled the UK out of deal to give prisons training advice to Saudi Arabia, having already scrapped the commercial arm of the MoJ that had sought the contract.

Mr Grayling's plans for "secure colleges" for young offenders were dropped, as were previously planned cuts to barristers' fees and a scheme to outsource the collection of fines by the courts.

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