The Legal Aid Board (LAB) is to assist the Law Society in a last-ditch attempt to help ethnic minority solicitors beat the legal aid reform timetable.
Law Society council member for ethnic minority solicitors, Maria Fernandes, formed an informal group of small firms, along with the Law Society and the LAB to address the issue after a Law Society crisis meeting this month, where only one out of 220 black and Asian solicitors raised his hand when asked who was franchised.
Now Fernandes' group is to produce a guide to a successful franchise application, which will be available from the practice advice service at the Law Society this week. LAB officials will check the guide for “suitability and accuracy”.
Firms require a franchise to carry on offering legally aided advice and assistance after January 2000, when exclusive contracting begins.
Fernandes fears many sole practitioners and small firms with a high number of ethnic minority solicitors will miss the 31 December deadline for franchise applications.
She said small firms were often “so busy” they had little time to prepare their franchise application or had been unaware of the deadline.
Last week Law Society president Michael Mathews urged the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, to push back the deadline by three months, claiming the proposals would also disproportionately affect women solicitors since seven out of 10 women solicitors spend more than half their time on legal aid work.
Mathews added: “Ethnic minority solicitors, in particular, will be hardest hit, as they are twice as likely to work in the smallest firms, and the communities in which they work contain a higher proportion of poorer clients.”