Law Soc commissions legal aid research drive

THE Law Society has commissioned a major research project into the impact the Government's reform plans will have on law firms across the country, as part of its campaign to force a U-turn on the reforms.

The research, which will be undertaken by the University of Sheffield Law Faculty's Professor Joanna Shapland, will take the form of case studies of up to a dozen small to medium-sized firms currently carrying out legal aid work.

It will investigate how the proposed replacement of legal aid with conditional fees will affect the firms.

Shapland, a professor of criminal justice, will lead a team of two accountants, academics and socio-legal field workers which will visit the firms that are involved to gather information at an undisclosed cost.

The team is scheduled to publish its results before the end of March – well before the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine is expected to embark on his reform plans.

The research is one of several legal aid initiatives being planned by the Law Society. A conference is planned in April and the society is also contemplating a national advertising campaign.

The Law Society joins the Lord Chancellor's Department (LCD) and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) in commissioning research on the impact of the reforms.

Last month the LCD hired Big Six accountants KPMG to investigate whether legal practices can realistically pay conditional fee insurance premiums for clients who cannot afford them.

The LAPG released the results of a survey carried out among its members at the end of January, showing access to justice would be reduced.

The majority of firms taking part in the LAPG's survey said they could not afford to fund disbursements and insurance premiums themselves and would downsize their practices or explore merger or takeover options if the changes went ahead.

Most survey participants supported the Law Society's Conditional Legal Aid Fund proposal by which the Legal Aid Board would fund initial work to ascertain liability, disbursements and insurance premiums.

More than 40 per cent agreed the Legal Aid System needed a radical overhaul while only three per cent thought the system should remain unchanged.