CRIMINAL practitioners invited by the Legal Aid Board (LAB) to take part in a new pilot scheme to test block contracting for duty solicitors have accused the board of being too secretive about its plans.
The LAB has invited duty solicitors to "express interest" in a new criminal advice and assistance contract pilot due to start before the end of this year.
But solicitors' groups have said they will not take part until they know more about the scheme and warned the pilot could run into the same problems as the current green form block contracting scheme.
Concerns over the green form pilot, which has now started, prompted the Law Society to call on firms to boycott the scheme earlier this year. Although the society called off the boycott, only 76 out of a hoped for 147 participating firms have sent in signed contracts to LAB. However, firms have until the end of the month to sign their contracts and the LAB said that new contracts were being submitted daily.
The duty solicitor pilot will take place among firms with legal aid franchises in crime in Manchester, Portsmouth, Telford, Blackburn, Shrewsbury, Reading and London, although in London only the 25 highest-earning franchised firms will participate.
Law Society policy adviser Natalie Breeze warned that the LAB "seemed to be going down the same route" as the green form pilot, where it invited expressions of interest but did not give out information until much later.
Criminal Law Solicitors' Association treasurer Howard Barrington-Clark said he was "frustrated" at the lack of information given to him, and "concerned" the scheme would mean "more administrative hoops to jump through" which "takes away from the work we want to be doing for clients".
He said an intention to introduce "additional quality standards" was "one of the few pieces of information" given out by the LAB in a letter sent to solicitors.
Solicitors have also criticised the LAB for not revealing which London firms are being invited to take part. London Criminal Courts Solicitors
Association secretary Mark Haslam said: "I cannot imagine why the LAB is not telling us this." He added he was "disappointed" at its "air of secrecy".
An LAB spokesman denied there had been a lack of information provided in the invitation letter sent out to firms, and said that a summary of the pilot project, setting out the LAB's objectives, had been enclosed.
He added: "It is not appropriate for the 25 London firms to be identified until they have submitted an expression of interest form."
The spokesman also reassured firms the scheme would not bury them in paperwork. "An important objective during the pilot will be to reduce the level of bureaucracy," he said.