FRANCHISED firms will be in the driving seat when it comes to competing for contracts under Lord Mackay's proposed new legal aid regime.
Details are yet to be fleshed out, but franchise-holders will have a distinct advantage when the system is overhauled.
It is understood that non-franchised firms will not be barred from applying to do legal aid work, but they will need to demonstrate some form of quality control if they are to be awarded contracts. It is likely that having a franchise will prove "extremely helpful".
Mackay is proposing a system under which law firms and other agencies would be awarded contracts to undertake blocks of work within fixed budgets.
Cash would be distributed by area offices of the Legal Aid Board which would also be responsible for prioritising need. Lord Mackay came out against separate "fundholders" as this would create an extra tier of bureaucracy.
"I am not attracted by the idea that the legal profession should have carte blanche to tout for business particularly under the Green Form scheme simply as a means of increasing turnover rather than as a means of meeting genuine and identified need," Mackay told the seminar staged by the Social Market Foundation.
The Lord Chancellor also signalled that the Bar would benefit under the new scheme which would encourage solicitors to pass on work when barristers were in a position to do it more efficiently.
Peter Goldsmith QC, chairman of the Bar, says that he welcomes recognition of barristers' lower overheads, but remains concerned about the consequences of cash-limiting.
Charles Elly, President of the Law Society, fears that the plans may amount to "the rationing of justice".
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group is worried that there will be "a dilution of legal aid from a basic right to a matter of discretion".
But Mackay says the aim is to make more cash available
by increasing efficiency and effectiveness through better targeting.
Paul Boateng MP, Labour's legal affairs spokesman, says that block-funding for criminal legal aid in the magistrates courts could amount to "a public defender system through the back door".