Criminal lawyers mount bid to force Law Soc contract boycott

CRIMINAL lawyers have launched a campaign to force the Law Society to prohibit solicitors from entering into exclusive block contracts with the Legal Aid Board (LAB).

The Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) is to petition its 840 members this month to back a motion calling on the Law Society to vote block contracting inconsistent with Rule 1 of the Solicitors Practice Rules, which compels solicitors to act in their clients' best interests.

Under Law Society rules, the CLSA requires 100 signatories before it can ask the society to vote on the resolution either at its AGM or at an extraordinary general meeting.

If the meeting voted for the rule change the society would have to consult on a possible change to the rules.

However, even if the move fails, the CLSA believes it will force the Law Society into a detailed debate over the issue of whether block contracting is professionally ethical.

Since Lord Irvine unveiled his legal aid plans last October, the society has been focusing its efforts on persuading the government not to abolish large swathes of legal aid

CLSA chair Steve Wedd said block contracting would restrict the right of the client to choose representation, and put pressure on the lawyer to work to the interests of the LAB not the client.

Law Society head of solicitors' remuneration, David Hartley, welcomed the CLSA's move, saying: 'It is a serious and important issue and there should be clear discussion of it.'

Block contract pilots for civil law green form work already exist and firms are due to sign contracts for the criminal law pilot between 1 April and mid-May covering advice work not representation in court.

Lord Irvine has announced he wants all civil green form work to be delivered under exclusive contracts by the end of 1999.

LAB policy adviser Vicky Kemp said: 'Both the Lord Chancellor and the LAB are very keen to ensure the independence of solicitors taking part in legal aid contracts.'>