Profession awaits 'barmy' cash limits

PLANS to impose cash limits on criminal legal aid have been described as a “barmy red herring” by the Law Society.

Lord Mackay is expected to suggest that the cash limited block legal aid contracts planned for civil work are extended to the criminal field when he unveils his legal aid Green Paper this week.

But the society's head of professional policy Russell Wallman dismisses the proposal as a red herring and a deliberate attempt by the Government to divert the flak from the reforms planned in civil legal aid.

“They know it can't work, but it diverts attention from the other proposals,” he says.

Tony Edwards, of London criminal legal aid firm TV Edwards, says cash limiting would put the right of defendants to be represented in court at risk, breaching international human rights law.

But there is room for contracts for the larger firms “within the general provision of criminal legal aid”, he says.

Proposals to curb barristers' civil legal aid fees, expected in the paper, could deny the public access to the skills of the Bar, according to Bar legal aid and fees committee chair Peter Birts QC.

Birts reacts with caution to reports that the new block contracting system will allow solicitors a free hand to negotiate fees, although he says the Bar would oppose a system with no “safeguards” to ensure access to the Bar's expertise.