By Hugh Logue, Newswatch Editor
The Government has announced that it will postpone the implementation of the legal aid aspects of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill currently passing through Parliament.
The postponement follows widespread criticism of the Bill from members of the House of Lords, the President of the Family Division, House of Lords Constitution Committee, senior judges, leading children's charities and all the family lawyers' professional associations.
In a statement released today, the Lord Chancellor Kenneth Clarke said that subject to the Bill being passed, the Government now proposes to implement changes to family legal aid fees in April 2013, instead of October 2012.
The fees already changed under current legislation will be implemented as planned. However the Government is postponing changes to competitive tendering. The Lord Chancellor's statement said: "Clearly the development of a competition strategy will be likely to have a substantial impact on the market for legally aided services, as will a number of other current developments. These changes will require significant levels of engagement between the Government and the profession. We plan to begin these discussions in early 2013 once the key components of our legal aid reform package, the regulatory changes allowing Alternative Business Structures, and the introduction of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates have had time to bed down. We will publish a full formal consultation document on the competition strategy towards the end of that year."
The indicative timetable for the development of the Government's competition strategy is now as follows:
Desmond Hudson, Chief Executive of the Law Society welcomed the delay: "We have repeatedly warned that implementation of the proposed changes to legal aid scope and provision by October 2012 was impractical. The Government has taken a sensible decision to defer this deadline. The new timetable is still challenging, given the work required to implement changes of this magnitude.
"Like other small businesses, law firms need reasonable notice of changes affecting them. This announcement is a welcome recognition of that need. But even given a more workable implementation timetable, solicitors and their clients who rely upon legal aid to secure justice are not well served by the poorly-evidenced and ill-conceived measures in the Bill. The Bill will not deliver the claimed financial savings and risks denying access to justice to all but the well-off. This delay to the implementation schedule offers a window of opportunity to work with stakeholders in improving the Bill."