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The profession is preparing itself for the publication of the White Paper on legal aid this week. Barristers and solicitors are united in opposition to the widely-leaked proposals for cash-limiting and block contracts for franchised firms.
Speaking at the Legal Action Group's conference on legal aid franchising last week, the Lord Chancellor Lord Mackay urged lawyers to recognise "that public expenditure will remain under increasing pressure, and competition for a share in it will grow even sharper".
But LAG director Roger Smith said the paper was no longer about access to justice but was "an exercise in intimidation". He said legally-aided litigants would pay more under the proposals and predicted the White Paper would introduce continuing liability for the payment of costs, a £10-20 application fee for civil legal aid, potential liability for the costs of a successful opponent and a more restricted merits test.
He said the Government stood to double its take from legally aided clients, currently £19 million a year. But he warned: "Piling such liabilities onto a hapless potential litigant who is already overwhelmed by existing rules is not the operation of balance: it is more the exercise of intimidation."
In criminal cases he envisaged fixed-budget contracts that were not responsive to volume or to barristers charges. He called on the profession to draw up guidelines along the lines of the Law Society practice management standards. "The profession needs to reclaim its autonomy in the name of its clients, not against them."
Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, claimed the White Paper would be bad news for the public. "Under the guise of restoring public confidence in legal aid, the Lord Chancellor threatens to make the poor pay more," he said.
The Legal Aid Practitioners' Group and the Bar Council are equally concerned about the proposals. A council spokes-man said they "risk reduction of choice, the denial of justice to some and the provision of second-rate justice to others".
The Law Society was due to publish suggestions on improving value for money in legal aid on Monday. These include making litigants who obtain legal aid through deliberate misrepresentation liable for opponents' costs, tightening procedures for granting emergency legal aid and curbing court waste.