Legal aid fee plans get thumbs down

The legal profession has reacted angrily to the Lord Chancellor's proposals to introduce standard fees for civil legal aid cases, accusing the Government of seeking justice on the cheap.

Under the proposals published last week, standard fees would apply for family and domestic violence work carried out by litigating solicitors and all civil legal aid work carried out by advocates.

Lawyers working on civil legal aid cases are currently paid an hourly rate. Under the new system, litigators would be paid when cases reach key stages. Advocates would be paid directly from the Legal Aid Board on completion of items of work.

The proposals will include escape clauses for litigators acting in complex cases, for which prescribed hourly rates will apply. But this let-out will not apply to advocacy work, a distinction the Bar Council described as “unfair and discriminatory”.

The new system is intended to operate until the White Paper proposals on contracting are implemented. Lord Mackay argues that it will cut costs and simplify the payment process and he aims to have it in operation by mid-1997.

But a spokesman for the Bar Council described the proposals as extremely disturbing. He said: “The fee system being proposed is absolutely rigid as well as bearing no relation to the amount of work involved in a case.”

He added: “The Bar Council will be making its very deep concerns explicit to the Lord Chancellor over the summer and it will be urging him to adopt a realistic system which offers the tax payer predictability and control over the cost but which also reflects the complexity and difficulty of individual cases.”

The Law Society also condemned the proposed standard fee as “far too low” and said the proposals will be unacceptable in their present form.

Derek Sands, chairman of the Courts and Legal Services Committee, pledged to consult relevant special interest groups such as the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group and the Solicitors Family Law Association, as well as local law societies on the matter.

He said the committee will consider the proposals at its meeting on 16 October and that therefore the Law Society will not be responding by the end of September deadline set by the Lord Chancellor.

The move is the latest in a series of measures to control fees. There is already a standardised fees system in the magistrates courts and there are plans to introduce graduated fees in crown courts.