Weekly round-up: 10 December 2012 and 1 January 2013, compiled by Emma Walker
Dog’s Dinner: MPs on the Commons Committee of Public Accounts have criticised the Ministry of Justice (‘MoJ’) for causing ‘total chaos’ in the court system by awarding a large interpreters’ contract to a small firm. The Committee’s report details how cases have been delayed and translators have failed to turn up and how many more have simply refused to work for Applied Language Solutions (ALS), which was taken over by Capita at the end of last year. The report reveals that the MoJ was aware it was financially doubtful that ALS could manage a contract worth more than £1 million, but still awarded the £42 million a year contract to the tiny firm to provide the interpreting services. The deal was made in spite of the fact that the MoJ needed 1,200 interpreters when ALS had only 280 properly assessed interpreters available. The Committee also heard that Capita counted anyone who had registered an interest on the firm’s website as a registered interpreter rather than checking their qualifications, experience and suitability first. The Committee’s Chairwoman commented: ‘We heard that some names were fictitious and one person had even successfully registered their pet dog‘. She added that the project provided an ‘object-lesson in how not to contract out a public service…almost everything that could go wrong did go wrong‘. However, Capita has only been fined a ‘risible’ £2,200, which the Committee warns sends the message that the MoJ allows private firms ‘to get away with over promising and underdelivering’.
More bad press for large Legal Aid bills: Earlier this month the Home Secretary, Teresa May, won permission to appeal the decision by the Special Immigration Appeals Commission (‘SIAC’) to block the deportation of Abu Qatada, who faces re-trial in Jordan for allegedly conspiring to cause explosions targeting Western and Israeli targets before 2000. The Jordanian court’s “guilty” verdict was arrived at in Abu Qatada’s absence. SIAC decided to block Abu Qatada’s deportation on the basis that Jordan has failed to prove that his re-trial would be free of evidence obtained by torture. It has emerged that Abu Qatada Legal Aid bill stands at £515,778 and rising. Labour MP, Valerie Vaz, who raised the issue of Abu Qatada’s funding total, said that the public would not understand plans to cut Legal Aid ‘when a large amount of public funds has been given to one person’s case’. Ms Vaz added that ‘[With] cuts to legal aid and the Criminal Injuries Compensation Scheme, it is vital to monitor how public money is being spent and this information should be in the public domain’. Last month the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, ordered an ‘immediate examination’ of the legal aid system after it emerged that Abu Hamza’s Legal Aid bill nearly topped £1m. Grayling commented that ‘[The] total costs in some cases seem very high and many, myself included, will question whether they provide value for money”. Amidst the controversy, the Legal Action Group has reminded people that Legal Aid is “an important part of the justice system…everybody should have the right to access to justice – it is these values that underpin this country’.
Cameron’s plans for ‘British bill of rights’ in tatters: The Commission formed to consider the question of a Bill of Rights for Britain has published its final report on the matter. However, it has emerged that the Commission members were unable to see eye-to-eye on the issues, as two members, Helena Kennedy QC and Philippe Sands QC, have produced a dissenting argument to the report’s recommendations. The latest distancing leaves only five of the original eight members supporting the report, following Dr Michael Pinto-Duschinsky resignation from the Commission in March. Although the Commission’s report has been described as ‘vague’ on many points, Kennedy has highlighted the danger of it being misused by the PM as the basis to ‘decouple’ from both the convention and the European Court of Human Rights. Kennedy commented that whilst leaving the EU is ‘a non-starter because of what it would do to the economy’, a British bill of rights and decoupling from the European court would constitute ‘a victory for the Europhobes’ something that she and her dissenting colleague we’re ‘not prepared to have any part in’.
Size Matters: This week The Guardian ran a story about junior lawyers with their sights set on high street practices. The article said that in spite of the major challenges posed by the economic downturn, the related fall in conveyancing work, competition from Alternative Business Structures, Legal Aid cuts, the imminent referral fee ban and the cost of regulation and insurance, junior lawyers are still keen to work in high street firms. Young professionals who have already made it to qualification provided advice on how to beat off competition for a training contract, including getting clerking or secretarial experience, studying part-time whilst working as a paralegal or taking the CILEX route to qualification. Perks of the high street and Legal Aid work are cited as giving clients access to justice and inspirational colleagues committed to fighting for the rights of clients in innovative ways. Whilst some are worried about what lies ahead for the high street others are optimistic, suggesting that economic and market turmoil will provide an opportunity for the ‘little people and entrepreneurs to rise to the top’.
Legal highs: The Legal Aid protests in Scotland seemed to reach a hiatus this week as the Edinburgh Bar Association confirmed that all 31 of its criminal law, member firms will not be taking part in the Police Station Duty Scheme for the Edinburgh Sheriff Court in the first quarter of 2013. In response, the Scottish Government has accused lawyers of placing the criminal justice at risk if it carries out the proposed action.
‘Massively oversubscribed’: The LSC has announced that it is starting to notify applicants of the outcome of their tenders for Family, Housing & Debt, Immigration & Asylum and Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme contracts to start in April 2013. Many organisations will be disappointed in the size of their awards, according to Vicky Ling on LegalVoice. ‘Immigration and asylum was perhaps the most surprising, as after April, the overwhelming majority of Immigration work will no longer be in scope. There are currently 225 offices with contracts in this category. The LSC received bids from 506 offices for over 140,000 matter starts, compared to the almost 41,000 available.’