1st April 2013. LASPO day. The day the new legal aid scheme began. Except, for most, it wasn’t. It was Easter Monday. Today is the real LASPO day, the day the cuts bite in earnest, the day that over 600,000 people will no longer get legal aid, the day some organisations won’t open their doors to greet their clients – and never will again.
For those of us left, there is a whole new legal aid scheme to get used to. New contracts, new rules, new legislation. We start again almost from scratch.
What should have happened is that the MoJ and LSC planned an orderly transition. Contracts issued; guidance written; regulations laid. And all in good time to allow us to be trained and understand the new scheme.
What did happen is that many crucial regulations were not laid until a couple of weeks ago; guidance is still being published today, and the LAA’s training programme is only half complete. Those who have attended the training in the last couple of weeks will know that the stock answers to most questions are “we are waiting for the MoJ to issue guidance on that” and “we don’t know, we’ll put it in the FAQ on the website”. Even some of the LAA’s own staff don’t understand the new scheme. Some essential material – like amendments to the crime contract specification – have not yet even been published and so can’t come into force for at least another six weeks.
We have tried to produce a Handbook that practitioners will find useful. As new material has been released we have drafted and re-drafted. The Handbook is the only single volume comprehensive guide to the legal aid scheme, and we want to keep it that way. As of 10 days ago, we had finally got all the crucial civil material and had a final draft of the civil, contract management and policy sections complete. Thanks to the herculean efforts of our publisher, Legal Action Group – and especially Esther Pilger, who has moved heaven and earth – we were able to go from final draft to publication within a week. All that we needed was the amendments to the criminal contract specification, and we were ready to go. The LSC – as it still was – said that they would be implemented by the end of April, which meant publication by mid-March. That came and went with no further explanation, and we still don’t have them.
But without them we can’t finalise the crime chapters. This left us in a real dilemma. If we waited – for who knows how long? – for the crime position to be finalised, those of our readers waiting for the civil sections would not get the Handbook at the start of April, when it is needed most. If we publish at the start of April, our crime readers would not have the correct information about their contracts. And we don’t know – and can’t get the LAA to tell us – how long it will be before the April amendments to the crime contract are published. April? May? Longer?
So we have come up with a solution that we hope will work. We are releasing the new edition of the Handbook as an e-book only today. This contains fully up to date and complete material for everything except the three crime chapters (which are updated as far as we could prior to the publication of all the material). You can download it from Amazon here. As soon as we can, we will finalise the crime chapters and will then release an update of the e-book (entirely free to those who have already bought it) and publish the paper version. We will keep you informed through this website about our progress.
The e-book is a Kindle version, which can be read on a Kindle device, or using the Kindle app on a desktop computer, ipad, iphone or Android phone or tablet, and you can find details of how to do so here
For those who pre-ordered the paper edition, we apologise for the delay in publication and we hope you understand that it was entirely out of our hands. We can not release the paper edition before it is accurate and complete. But rather than just waiting to publish the paper version we wanted to make sure that all those who needed the information from the start of April were able to get it, so we are publishing in two stages. We know this is not an ideal situation; but it is not of our making and this is the best way forward we can come up with. We waited as long as we could; had the crime amendments come out last week, we could have published the paper version this week. But if we waited any longer, the Handbook would not be available to civil lawyers facing the biggest change in a generation.
Perhaps we should have anticipated it; but even with our combined experience of working in legal aid, we did not predict that the MoJ and LSC/LAA would be so shambolic as to not manage to publish the contractual framework governing the implementation of the legal aid Act until after it came into force. This is not tragedy repeating itself as farce, this is both happening at the same time.
Not a good start.