Legal aid bar given second bite at VHCC cherry after slow uptake

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) yesterday (3 March) offered the legal aid bar another opportunity to sign the contracts for very high cost cases (VHCCs) after only 130 barristers joined the panel.

The new offer follows the LSC’s revision of the original contract for solicitors. This deal along with agreements for the 130 barristers previously signed up have now been sent out to be returned by midday on 14 March.

David Keegan, director of LSC’s high cost case contracting, said the new contracts were in the interests of the public.

“Following concerns raised by the Bar Council, the amended contract confirms we are not seeking access to barristers diaries and will require them only to follow the ‘cab rank’ rule on the acceptance of cases,” said Keegan. “I hope those barristers who initially tendered for this work but did not sign will now take the opportunity to do so.”

When the original contracts are signed, the 130 VHCC panel barristers will be the first port of call on the most complex criminal cases, with guaranteed fee rates to be paid directly by the LSC.

The rest of the legal aid bar – more than 2,000 barristers – will only be able to be instructed if no panel members are available and only as an advocate fee that does not exceed the panel member rates.

For panel silks payment for preparation time will rise from £91 to £145 an hour, while court work will be paid at £476 a day.

Leading juniors’ pre-trial fees will be between £79 and £127 an hour, with advocacy rates of £390 a day.

The LSC’s renewed offer to barristers comes as the Bar Council yesterday (3 March) slammed the best value tendering scheme (BVT), which will be used for all non-VHCC cases across the whole of the legal aid profession.

Bar Council vice-chair Desmond Browne QC, who is chairing the Council’s BVT working group, said that a market-driven approach to legal aid will harm the quality of the legal aid provision and is not in the public interest nor the interests of the Bar.

In relation to the LSC’s consultation paper on BVT published last December, Browne added: “The paucity of detail provided by the LSC has made it impossible for the Working Group to comment on the proposals in a meaningful way; we remain extremely concerned that BVT will be implemented despite little or no analysis by the LSC of the impact it will have on quality and diversity.”

In response the LSC welcomed the Council’s comments as they will contribute to the debate.

“We believe that moving to a competitive market for most legal aid work is the best way to deliver quality services at the best possible price,” said an LSC spokesman. “Stringent quality standards are at the centre of the proposals and firms will have to meet these before being allowed to bid for legal aid work.”

LEGAL AID FACTS:
[Source: Legal Services Commission]

*Total legal aid expenditure per annum for criminal representation: £1.2bn

*Last year approximately 400 defendants were funded by legal aid in 100 VHCC criminal cases at a cost of £100m per year.

*Defence teams are typically paid around £400,000 but costs in some, including the Jubilee Line Fraud case, have run to several million.

*Last year the LSC funded advice and representation for nearly 1.6m defendants. Around 120,000 of these were in Crown Court cases.

*The cost of VHCC cases was approximately 9 per cent of the criminal legal aid budget.

*VHCC crime expenditure was £105m