A furious criminal law solicitor is threatening to take the Legal Aid Board (LAB) to court over “cuts” in duty solicitor phone calls.
Rodney Warren, senior partner of Eastbourne firm Rodney Warren & Co, has accused the Brighton LAB office of introducing “budgetary cuts through the back door”.
He said the office is classing all solicitor phone calls to a police station, other than those involving clients, as routine calls, meaning the law firm receives £3.50 per call instead of £20.25.
The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association fears that this might become a nationwide problem.
Association chair Stephen Wedd said he “deplored” the board’s actions. “They can’t carry on taking arbitrary decisions like this,” he said.
“It’s ill-considered and short-sighted. There ought to be consultation.”
It is understood that other local LAB offices, including north Wales and Reading, are making the same changes.
An LAB spokesman denied that the local Brighton board had adopted a set policy on the issue, saying it considers each case individually.
Documents from the Brighton office obtained by The Lawyer repeatedly state: “Advice and assistance calls that did not involve the solicitor and client reduced to routine rate call.”
Warren said he had 15 “advice and assistance” claims rejected by the board in eight working days, which he estimated lost his firm about £500 a week. He has lodged an appeal with the area committee and said that he will take the issue to judicial review if necessary.
“The LAB have unilaterally changed the long-accepted interpretation of the regulations” he said.
“Meanwhile, the profession’s only recourse is through a lengthy appeal procedure and to suffer the financial consequences.”
Law Society professional policy executive David Hartley said: “It is a legitimate argument to say that when a solicitor obtains information from a police officer to assist in advising his client, it amounts to assistance as defined in the Legal Aid Act and therefore should be charged as advice and assistance.”
The LAB said there was no national guidance on the issue. It added that the appeal process, which could take more than six months to complete, should be exhausted before the issue was taken to court. It said: “Discussion of judicial review is at this time premature.”