Criminal Law, Government & Legislation

New quality scheme for legal aid lawyers

The Legal Services Bill, which will replace the Legal Services Act 2000, was introduced in Parliament on 4 August 2010, and will bring along a number of important changes. For once,  it will expand the Public Defence Service, which is a kind of government funded duty solicitor service. The current duty solicitor scheme operates with private practitioners, who invoice the LSA for their services. The PDS, however, employs full time duty solicitors, who are public servants, i.e. employed by the Ministry of Justice. There will also be a provision that the PDS must be allocated a certain share of available cases, which will lead to a decrease in caseload (and income) for many current practitioners.

In addition a quality assurance framework is introduced to ensure all legal aid providers are up to a  certain minimum standard and have  the proper skills to do the job. A PDS-appointed duty lawyer supervisor will oversee the service and certain selection criteria will apply for new appointments to the roster and for ongoing roster entry. Especially the latter has already stirred quite some controversy among experienced practitioners who are concerned that such quality checks will be arbitrary, proof of adequate service levels almost impossible to assess and an administrative nightmare.  Their fears might be justified, though more concerning is the fact that instead of using sanctions available under the current LSA regime to go after the few lawyers who abuse the system, the new legislation puts the whole profession under supervision.  Where is the fairness in that?

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