THE GOVERNMENT has said that all franchised lawyers wanting a legal aid contract in the first round of the Access to Justice reforms will get one.
But its refusal to guarantee contracts beyond the first round has led to a scathing attack from Lord Philips of Sudbury, who has accused the Lord Chancellor of being in cloud-cuckoo land.
The Lord Chancellor's Department has announced that all firms with a franchise to act in either civil or criminal courts, will receive block contracts covering the first three years of the new system.
Speaking in the House of Lords last week, Lord Irvine said: "We are still at the planning stage, but in the first round of contracting I would expect all franchised firms who want a contract to receive one. Our current expectation would be the same for contracts for criminal work."
But he refused to guarantee contracts beyond the first round and hinted at future restrictions, saying that "in the longer term, selective contracting should allow us to introduce an element of competition".
Legal and consumer groups are welcoming the initial certainty, but oppose any future reduction.
Vicki Chapman, policy director at the Legal Action Group, says it is "reassuring" to discover the Lord Chancellor's intentions at last.
Lord Philips says the contracts will last only until the Government has put its competitive tendering process in place.
"The issue is not what's going to happen in that first round, it's what their long-term game plan is, and that's cutting the 10,600 legal aid solicitors to 3,000. We are going to lose over 7,000 solicitors doing legal aid."
He says Irvine is in "sheer, bloody cloud-cuckoo land" and "a long time away from [legal aid] work" if he thinks block contracts would improve access to justice.
He says Irvine and his advisers are cutting costs by sacrificing quality, and lack experience in day-to-day legal aid work.
A spokesman for the Lord Chancellor says it is "speculation" to predict whether or not the number of contracts will be cut after the first three years.
"It will be down to each regional committee's recommendations after that."