Legal aid set for massive shake-up

The legal aid market is set for massive upheaval in a series of reforms that will change the way practitioners work and are paid.

The changes will come following Lord Carter of Coles’ review of legal aid procurement, whic was published last week (13 July). A year of intensive work has led to the most wide-ranging recommendations for legal aid work since the present system was established in 1949.

Speaking at a press conference to announce the report, Carter predicted that the implementation of the review would result in consolidation among law firms and the “the end of the £1m-a-year criminal defence barrister”.

His recommendations include the introduction of fixed fees, payable on completion of a case, for simple criminal cases; a revision to the graduated fee scheme for more complex cases and civil matters; and the introduction of tendering for contracts, based on quality, capacity and price.

Carter said the proposals will slash legal aid spending by around £100m a year when implemented fully. He added that it would mean an end to the “unreasonably large amounts” paid to some leading counsel for arguing complex cases, and predicted that it will result in more mergers between law firms and the end of around 400 small criminal practices.

“This should provide the service, it should thrive, and the model should be sustainable,” he said.

He acknowledged that the transition will not be smooth, saying: “These changes are going to prove difficult and challenging for some people.”

However, Carter said that he and his team, which included Allen & Overy senior partner Guy Beringer, had made the recommendations after a close look at the way legal aid currently works.

“We have a system we should be absolutely proud of and one we should defend at all costs,” Carter insisted.

The recommendations were given a cautious welcome by the Law Society and the Bar Council. Geoffrey Vos QC, vice-chair of the Bar Council and head of its Carter response team, said that the figures proposed by Carter “deserved serious consideration by the profession”. Law Society president Kevin Martin added that more work was needed to develop the proposals.

The Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) and the Legal Services Commission have launched a consultation paper last Thursday (13 July) designed to canvas the profession’s opinion on the proposals. The consultation period ends in October.