As reported in the Yorkshire Post:
“Legal firms in rural Yorkshire have won a partial reprieve after the Government backed down on a string of controversial reforms to legal aid which could have forced scores of businesses to close.
MPs and lawyers from across North and East Yorkshire welcomed the abrupt U-turn by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling following months of outcry about his proposed shake-up of legal aid.
Under draft plans published earlier this year, the Government said it would restrict the number of legal aid contracts across the whole of North Yorkshire to just four, and that bidding firms would be expected to offer coverage for the entire county.
But following a stormy consultation, Mr Grayling has now agreed to divide North Yorkshire into two, smaller contract areas and to carry out further research into how many contracts should be awarded in each.
He also abandoned contentious plans to award legal aid contracts to the lowest bidder, which lawyers had warned would lead to a “race to the bottom”.
“We can be cautiously positive,” said Kevin Blount, a partner at Howard and Byrne Solicitors in York. “This certainly allays some of the principal concerns. What they are now proposing for North Yorkshire is certainly a more manageable area.
“But we don’t yet know how many contracts there will be – there’s more work to be done. The devil, as ever, is in the detail.”
Mr Blount also welcomed the Government’s decision to abandon plans to stop paying mileage to legal aid solicitors who travel long distances to visit clients at courts and police stations, which would have hit rural firms hard.
“North Yorkshire is the largest geographical area,” he said. “That was going to be a huge hidden cost to us.”
Documents published by the Ministry of Justice admitted the proposals had received “significant amount of criticism”.
Labour said the original plans were “half-baked”, but Mr Grayling said the process had been one of “genuine consultation”.
“I was impressed by comments made by (MPs) about our having to do more to try to address the issues in rural areas, and that was something I tried to take into account,” he told the Commons.
The changes were warmly welcomed by MPs from remote areas.
“I thank the Justice Secretary for listening to the concerns of rural solicitors’ businesses and barristers across North Yorkshire,” said Skipton MP Julian Smith.
David Davis, the former Shadow Home Secretary and MP for Haltemprice and Howden, said he was “delighted” at the changes.
“Plans to limit the number of legal aid firms, and to award contracts to the lowest bidder, were flawed from the start,” he said.
However, the former Tory leadership contender warned that “serious problems” remain with the proposals, including a plan to make it harder to win funding to bring about judicial reviews of Government decisions.
“Rightly or wrongly, the reforms to judicial review funding give the impression that they are designed to stop legitimate challenges to Government policy,” he said.
For solicitors, the biggest concern remains Mr Grayling’s decision to push ahead with further cuts to legal aid fees, which will be reduced by 17.5 per cent by 2015.
Bill Waddington, a director at Hull law firm Williamsons and chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said it was inevitable many firms would close as a result.
“The issue with regard to rural areas has to an extent been addressed,” he said. “But the threat is very much alive in urban areas.
“A cut of 17.5 per cent places small, medium and large legal firms alike in a very vulnerable position.””