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Lawyers have reacted with outrage at the Government's decision to freeze legal aid rates for yet another year.
The Lord Chancellor announced on Friday that he would not increase legal aid rates for the 1999/2000 round, the fifth time the rates have been frozen in seven years.
The Law Society says solicitors' costs have risen 17 per cent in the last five years and legal aid specialists say holding the rates will drive smaller firms out of legal aid as it becomes uneconomic.
"It's, at best, a marginal occupation and even unremunerative in the London and the South East. Senior practitioners are refusing to do legal aid and pushing it down to junior staff," says Eileen Pembridge, senior partner at London firm Fisher Meredith.
"We do everything we can to drive up standards as they ask, then they treat us with contempt. It's short-sighted and reprehensible," she says.
Law Society vice-president Robert Sayer says: "The Government says it wants a quality legal service yet has once again made it clear that it is not willing to pay for it. This will be just an incentive for legal aid solicitors to throw in the towel."
A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor says: "The 5,000 applications we've received for family franchises for legal aid work suggest that people are at least interested in continuing to do legal aid work. The current rates do seem to be attracting sufficient numbers of competent people to do the work."