The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, will next month ask the Legal Aid Board (LAB) to draw up plans for exclusive block contracting for criminal legal aid – even though pilots of it have only just begun.
The LAB closed negotiations with firms taking part in the two-year criminal block contract pilot on 31 May, although some contracts are still to be signed.
The Law society has for some time been urging firms not to take part in the pilots.
Many criminal solicitors have feared for some time that the government will move to an exclusive block contract system before the pilots are completed.
The LAB is already due to issue tougher franchise standards next year – requiring firms to spend more time and resources on improving quality of service – and these standards are likely to be maintained when contracting begins fully.
Some firms have already moved to protect themselves. London and Manchester criminal firm Tuckers has been besieged by small practices wanting to be swallowed up in order to survive the government's block contracting plans.
Tuckers – the largest criminal firm in England – took over two-partner firm Surrey practice Martin Lowe in April, and has since been approached by seven other firms.
Tuckers business manager Brian Craig said the firm was “in serious negotiations” with two London practices and one Manchester firm. He said another three had shown interest in amalgamation but they were working in areas in which Tuckers was not very interested. He said another firm was talking to Tuckers as well.
Craig, who played a prominent role in recent block contract negotiations between the 25 participating London firms and the LAB, said he would be “amazed” if other large firms were not also holding negotiations with smaller firms anxious about whether or not they would survive the changes to legal aid.
Fisher Meredith partner Stephen Hewitt said: “I would have thought firms would have to have themselves in position to survive [exclusive contracting] within 18 months.”
But TV Edwards partner Tony Edwards warned: “We don't yet know if the contracts are going to be allocated on an area basis or not, or if quality will be preserved, so I am surprised if small firms are doing this.”