Ending Legal Aid will lower standards.

The government’s reputation for incompetence shows no signs of abating, as they mimic the management ethos of Mid Staffs hospital and apply it to the criminal defence service.

These are government proposals which are to be applied to solicitors’ firms providing advice in police stations and courts. They propose the removal of choice of solicitor from the service user, in order to create a greater economy of scale and drive down costs. But, by doing so they will remove the competition which drives up standards and establish a local monopoly, rarely the most effective model to promote efficiency.

Consider this scenario. Your son has been arrested after his friend got into a fight. Your son was there when the fight happened, but wasn’t a part of it. However, he then prefers to say nothing to the police, because he doesn’t want to get his mates in trouble. The police interview will be much quicker if the lad makes no comment. The solicitor advises him to speak, but he doesn’t push the issue when the lad objects. As a result, your son refuses to answer police questions and this leads to a £10k trial where the young man is acquitted after he gives his account at court.

In the above scenario, the legal adviser gets paid regardless and cannot be criticised, on paper. He or she has also generated a fee from a trial. Your son’s A level results are effected by the several months of stress and distraction. You and your son cannot influence whether this solicitor gets more work or not, since there is no longer any personal recommendation. There is no competition.

The other scenario is that the solicitor does his or her job properly by explaining the gravity of the situation and encouraging the young man to account for himself. The account is persuasive and the police drop the matter then and there. The parents appreciate the solicitor and recommend him to a neighbour.

The NHS has little or no competition. Under New Labour, Tony Blair proposed choice, to drive up standards and drive down costs, but Gordon Brown objected, arguing that people want to go to their local hospital for their operation, not some distant place. In Mid Staffs a culture emerged where it was normal for patients to die. As result, when a whole bunch died, no one thought to raise the alarm. If there had been a choice of hospitals, then patients would have deserted a place like Mid Staffs for one with better results. But, there wasn’t so patients knew no better. There was no regulation by the market because there was just the local monopoly.

For solicitors, competition keeps standards high. As a process of regulation, it is simple, effective and already built into the system. Removing personal choice for users will cause systemic damage by destroying the market’s regulation of solicitors’ standards.

This government might talk about markets and efficiency, but as these proposals demonstrate, when it comes to implementing practical policy, they really haven’t got a clue.

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