This is a major reversal for the MoJ and its departmental minister, Chris Grayling. The announcement is a significant admission of failure in policy-making, and it is a proposal which came worryingly close to implementation, for today’s reality-check was certainly not inevitable.
The proposal was “ambitious” (for fuller details see my April post at the New Statesman here).
Instead of the existing market-place for providers of criminal defence legal services (mainly High Street solicitors), the MoJ was going to offer a limited number of high-value contracts which almost all current providers simply could not afford to bid for. The hope – and it had no more a realistic nature than a hope – was that the desired super-providers would somehow appear. The MoJ could not explain how this would actually happen, but their proposal was predicated on this wished-for market change. The MoJ was even willing to remove the historic right of those arrested to choose their own solicitor so as to guarantee revenue-streams for these (imagined) super-providers.
This proposal was not “Thatcherism gone mad”. Indeed, it made no sense whatever one’s ideology. It was simply unworkable. There was no reason to believe these super-providers would appear (and, in fact, because of regulatory requirements, it would be almost impossible for High Street firms to even merge in the time available). Nor did the proposal make sense from a budget reduction perspective: the MoJ could not explain how this proposal would save any money. It even had to admit that the implementation costs would mean higher expenditure in the short-term.
Even though the proposal was self evidently daft – and dangerous – the MoJ pressed ahead with it anyway. This was not some feint so as to get support for budget reductions elsewhere – the MoJ genuinely planned the new contracts to be let this year.
This was simply not serious policy-making. Two months ago, the MoJ quietly announced it was dropping the proposal to restrict the choice of those arrested to choose a solicitor. It is now dropping the proposed competition model altogether.
The budget reductions facing the criminal (and civil) legal justice system are real, and so mature thought needs to be given as to how such reductions can be implemented without adversely affecting the administration of justice. All this needs a competent politician and a competent government department.
However, the wild goose chase of the now-dropped price competition proposal suggests that neither Grayling nor his department are up to the task of intelligent and realistic policy-making. The proposal simply should never have got this close to implementation.