Cautious Law Soc agrees to talks on Green Paper block contracts

DELEGATES at the Law Society's Legal Aid conference have rejected wholesale opposition to Lord Mackay's reform plans and voted instead to

negotiate over block contracts.

A resolution passed by the conference said the meeting “wholly distrusts the basis on which the Green Paper is written” but was prepared to negotiate “over time and with proper research”.

An earlier resolution acknowledging that block contracts “may be the way forward” was defeated by just three votes.

The conference at Wembley last week was attended by more than 500 delegates and formed the centrepiece of the Law

Society's consultation on the Lord Chancellor's reform Green Paper.

The resolution or “proposition” on block contracting was one of a series passed by the meeting, which are not binding on the Law Society but which president Charles Elly promised would “inform” the decision-making process.

Other resolutions called for:

the adaptation of legal aid to cover conditional fees if they are successful;

the establishment of quality accreditation schemes for legal aid firms by the Law Society;

the preservation of the legally aided client's protection from paying the other side's costs;

the “proper piloting” of far- reaching civil reforms, particularly cost cutting or fixed fees.

The society's current position on Lord Mackay's reform blueprint was delivered to the meeting by deputy vice-president Henry Hodge.

He continued the society's unrelenting assault on the Green Paper's central proposal for cash-limited exclusive block contracts which he claimed would be “a disaster for the public”.

A subsequent workshop on contracts, attended by more than 150 lawyers, opposed the Green Paper but was divided over how the Law Society should respond.

Around half said they opposed block contracting but should negotiate.

“There's no good standing in front of the incoming tide like King Canute,” said Helen Watkins, partner at Dawbarns in Wisbech, East Anglia.

Law Society head of professional policy Russell Wallman denies the conference vote backing negotiation over contracts is out of kilter with the society's vigorous assault on the Green Paper.

He says that there was overwhelming opposition to cash limiting and price tendering for contracts but a “strong view that if the Government was determined to go ahead, in whatever way, then it would be more sensible to talk to them rather than boycott discussions”.

John Malpas