LEGAL aid lawyers have hit back at the senior partner of a City firm who has blamed the soaring cost of justice on "noisy campaigning solicitors" pursuing speculative cases.
David McIntosh, senior partner of Davies Arnold Cooper, told Lord Woolf's 'Access to justice' seminar that the public purse was leant upon too heavily and too often.
McIntosh, pointing to the collapsed Benzodiazapene litigation, said the legal aid budget was out of control because lawyers were "judge and jury in the cause of their own costs".
He added that the system of hourly payments rewarded the second-rate, slow-coach lawyers who were picked by "once only" inexperienced litigants.
But personal injury specialists are claiming that it is the defendants who are responsible for running up costs.
And Lyn Devonald, chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, says the picture of a "blank-cheque legal aid culture" painted by McIntosh is misleading.
"The legal aid system he describes would not be recognisable to a practitioner who operates within it. You can tell the speech was made by someone who works on the defendants' side."
McIntosh called for a package of reforms to curtail spiralling legal aid costs, which included periodic updates to assess the merits and the budget. Devonald says the systems are already in place and the Legal Aid Board keeps a keen eye on payments.
He agrees that the "Yellow Pages culture" for picking a legal aid lawyer is unsatisfactory, but says the profession is taking steps to improve the situation with franchising and the setting-up of specialist panels.
Mark Mildred, co-ordinator of the multi-party actions special interest group of the Association of Personal Injury Lawyers, says defendants add to the costs by "messing plaintiffs around". He says attempts to structure group actions have been resisted by defendants.
APIL's secretary Roger Goodier agrees: "If insurance companies were more sensible, a lot of cases which are presently litigated would be resolved amicably.
"Increasingly, insurers do absolutely nothing, following notification of claim, until court proceedings are issued. This increases litigation and increases the costs."
Goodier adds that the vast majority of personal injury cases cost the State nothing because the claims succeed. "In regard to Benzodiazapene, he is highlighting one particular case which is not representative."