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Fights don't come much more one-sided than the current stand-off between a besieged criminal defence profession and a government hell-bent on redrafting the legal aid contract, but the lawyers launched an interesting broadside against their paymasters last week.
A mystery City firm has advised that the Legal Aid Practitioners Group that proposed contract terms could be unlawful.
How so? According to the LAPG, the Legal Service Commission's (LSC) imposition of its standard contract terms could represent "an abuse of power and/or the Commission's dominant market position". As LAPG chairman Roy Morgan puts it: "The Commission is once again reserving the right to make unilateral changes to the contract. Whilst this was at least understandable when the scheme was brand new, it cannot be appropriate after four years."
In particular, the group's hefty 18-page legal opinion takes exception to the provisions relating to termination and sanctions in the proposed contract which, they argue, are drawn so wide that they can be applied at will by the LSC. They also object to one clause that means if a claim that has been assessed by the court three months late, the solicitor will not receive a penny.
The LAPG is calling on the LSC to extend the existing contracts "to give time for discussion of the new contract" before it comes in at the start of April. It remains to be seen whether this latest initiative slows down ministers' juggernaut-like determination to driving through the new deal. Certainly the LAPG opinion raises enough disturbing questions to justify further calm reflection. As they argue: "Beyond lawfulness, there are numerous clauses that are, in lay terms, simply unfair." It is hard to disagree.