'Fundholders' still a live issue

The future of the controversial “fundholders for justice” proposals remains unclear following reports that the plans had been dumped as part of the Lord Chancellor's Department's (LCD) radical review.

The LCD insists that the report by the Social Market Foundation is still being considered “with interest”, although insiders doubt whether the fundholders scheme can work in practice.

But lawyers are now worried about its other proposals, such as the plan to stop representation in magistrates courts. The idea was rounded on at a recent conference of criminal practitioners who described the proposal as “complete madness”.

Tony Edwards, secretary of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association, said its proposal was “frightening”. Lee Bridges, author of Standing Accused, said the proposals could lead to discontinuity of representation and a further deterioration in the quality of defence work.

But Foot & Bowden partner Tony Holland, joint author of the Social Market Foundation report, says the issue of representation in the magistrates' courts is down to priorities.

“If we have to balance guilty plea representation as opposed to advising a single mother on her benefits, the latter may be more important that the former. At the moment we may be prioritising things the wrong way,” says Holland.

Anne Grosskurth, policy officer with the Legal Action Group, concedes that the duty solicitor scheme is in need of change.

“There is a real problem with the over-supply of solicitors but it would seem unjust to deny defendants the right to representation just because it is a minor case,” she says

Law Society officials are broadly against the fundholder proposals because they say it would restrict choice, but Holland argues that this may have to be sacrificed if access to justice is to be maintained.

The Social Market Foundation report, which includes the fundholder proposal, is just one of a series of ideas which the Lord Chancellor has been considering since June.

The Treasury-inspired fundamental review also covers the court building programme, a review of civil litigation, the green paper divorce proposals, personal injury and the other main areas of civil litigation. Family law, housing, contract, debt enforcement and neighbourhood disputes are also under scrutiny.

The review team was made up of the department's officials, while the advisory group on legal aid included assistant recorder George Pulman QC, Steve Orchard, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board and David Batt of the Treasury.

The group also included the three who put their names to the fundholder report, Martin Partington, Gwyn Bevan and Tony Holland.