THE Government is preparing to clamp down on legal aid fees by imposing standard fees on all family law cases by the end of the year.
The Lawyer has learned that discussions between the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD), the Law Society and the Bar Council are now at "an advanced stage" over the controversial move, which was hotly opposed by the profession when first mooted two years ago.
The move is an indication of the Government's determination to be seen to be taking immediate action against the "fat cat" barristers the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, so famously railed against last year rather than waiting for its planned new block contracting scheme to take effect, which could take several years.
The LCD recently began a series of regular discussions with the Law Society and the Bar Council and will be holding meetings three times a month in the run-up to the start date fulfiling the Government's duty to consult with the profession before introducing the system by statutory instrument.
Discussion is currently focusing on whether research should be commissioned and how the new system, by which lawyers are paid a set fee per case, will fit in with plans for the contracting of legal aid work.
An LCD spokesperson said the Government intended to have the system, which will cover all family cases including domestic violence, operating by the beginning of 1999.
He added: "Ministers decided last year that family cases would be first to be subject to consultation and discussion."
Standard fees already operate for solicitors doing criminal magistrates' court work and Crown court preparation work, and a system of graduated fees exists for barristers and solicitor advocates.
But an extension of the system originally proposed by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Mackay, in 1996, following research carried out by accountancy firm Ernst & Young in 1994 is likely to cause a furore in the profession.
Law Society head of solicitors remuneration David Hartley said the initial research was "fundamentally flawed".
Solicitors Family Law Association vice-chair Rosemary Carter said she opposed a standard fee system based on existing research, which she claimed was discredited. She warned that solicitors may be unfairly penalised unless the Government distinguished between different types of work.
Bar Council head of legal services, Mark Stobbs, called standard fees a "blunt instrument".