Birts condemns Mackay's block contract proposals

John Malpas reports

CASH-LIMITED block legal aid contracts giving solicitors a free hand to save money by ignoring barristers must be resisted, according to the Bar Council's legal aid expert.

Peter Birts, chair of the council's legal aid and fees committee, has come out firmly against the central tenets of the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper.

Under the proposals it will be up to solicitors operating within fixed budgets to buy in services for their clients, including barristers. Birts fears this will tempt some lawyers to keep services in-house in an effort to keep costs down.

While this may help solicitors to keep within their budgets, it will not be in the clients' interest, he claims.

The Bar Council is taking soundings as it prepares to draw up its response to the Green Paper, published in May.

Planning committee vice-chair Jonathan Hirst QC is in charge of co-ordinating the consultation, but as chair of the legal aid and fees committee Birts will also be influential.

And he admits his opposition to the concept of block contracting proposals has hardened since the publication of the Green Paper.

"Under the plans the clients will be entirely in the hands of the solicitor as to whether a barrister is hired or not," he says. "The solicitors will be running a business and there will be conflict of interest between business and profits and the client. Inevitably the public interest will lose out, along with the Bar."

The Lord Chancellor's determination to impose cash-limited block contracts is signalled by his rejection of the Law Society's reform blueprint 'Design for the future' which defended the current system and suggested a series of cash-saving reform plans.

Birts, however, insists that Lord Mackay could not ignore the views of the profession if it came out firmly against cash-limited block contracts.

He is particularly optimistic he will climb down over the proposals to include criminal legal aid under the block contracting umbrella.

"The whole principle is unworkable because you don't know what the demand is going to be, people are bound to run out of funds," he says.

Birts pins much of his hope on the introduction of standardised fees for both criminal and civil legal aid which he believes will take the wind out of the Lord Chancellor's sails by curbing the growth in fees.

He is currently negotiating a graduated fees system for criminal legal aid with the Lord Chancellor. He says that this, as well as guidelines he has drawn up for 'The Legal Aid Handbook' encouraging a more stringent application of the merits test, is evidence of the Bar Council's willingness to work to improve the system.

The Lord Chancellor's Department has also begun to look into standard fees for civil work. "We are happy with discretionary fees, but given the situation with block contracting, standard fees are preferable," says Birts.