Less power for barristers

John Malpas reports

A MARKED shift of power away from barristers into the hands of solicitors will be caused by the proposed legal aid reforms, a leading legal pressure group has predicted.

According to Roger Smith, director of the Legal Action Group, the plan to allow law firms to run block legal aid contracts will further erode the status of the young Bar.

He said proposals to hand legal aid purse strings over to solicitors under a contracting system would encourage firms inclined to favour their own lawyers over barristers. There would always be a place for a specialist Bar, but the change would mean less work in county and magistrates courts.

"Solicitors will become the fundholders," he said. "Power will shift to them from barristers in the same way it has shifted away from consultants to GP fundholders under the NHS reforms."

A key Bar Council concern before the publication of the Government's legal aid White Paper had been the effect of solicitors managing their own budgets. The paper goes out of its way to reassure barristers they will not be sidelined.

"The board is developing ways of monitoring the outcomes, to test whether providers are achieving satisfactory results," it says. "This will identify providers who may be cutting corners to increase their profits."

The Bar Council's response is led by Jonathan Hirst QC. "The White Paper is full of reassurance," he said, "but I am bound to say, it reads like a series of platitudes."