Set blazes trail of fixed cost services

A London chambers has drawn up a pioneering scheme to provide advocacy services to law firms under fixed contracts in a preparation for the threatened shake-up of the legal aid system.

One King's Bench Walk fears chambers may be sidelined if government plans to farm out legal aid to law firms under contract go ahead.

It believes firms working under the constraints of block contracts will not be prepared to use chambers unless they can provide their services at a fixed price.

The set, led by James Hunt QC, has teamed up with two law firms, The James Smith Partnership, of Skegness, and Park Woodfine, of Bedford, to pilot its plan to offer legally aided advocacy to firms under a block contract arrangement.

Practice manager Peter Bennett said: “I have spoken to firms which have said they would prefer to use solicitor advocates if chambers cannot fix their fees. The option would probably provide a less effective service, but it would cut out the risk posed by variable fees.”

Family barrister Martine Kushner added: “Naturally we are nervous, barristers don't like change, but block contracts are going to be introduced – both the Government and the Labour Party wants them.”

One King's Bench Walk has already drawn up a draft “protocol” which it believes could be acceptable to both sides. In return for regular monthly payments, the chambers would offer:

advocacy services at a fixed cost for each year covered by the legal aid contract signed by the firm;

the same seniority of barristers and level of service as would have been provided under the old system;

payment of an outside barrister drawn from a list agreed by the firm if the set is unable to provide suitably senior counsel for a case.

Ray Levine, of Park Woodfine, said such an arrangement would make it much easier for the firm to bid for a contract. “It would allow us to have some sort of control over our finances.”

A Lord Chancellor's Department spokeswoman described the initiative as “interesting”. She added: “We welcome innovative approaches to legal work.”