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THE LEGAL profession is showing signs of division over legal aid reform - a week after the Lord Chancellor unveiled his controversial Green Paper.
However, speakers at the Legal Action Group conference on legal aid were united in condemning Lord Mackay's cash limits.
Law Society deputy vice-president Henry Hodge said Lord Mackay's proposals were "treasury-driven" and "pernicious".
He defended the current legal aid system, saying, with improvement, it was the best way of targeting those who needed support if properly funded.
But his speech prompted "negative" claims from conference chair Barbara Stow, chair of the Legal Action Group, and a scathing attack from Brent Community Law Centre Coordinator Patrick Lefevre.
An outraged Lefevre said the current scheme deprived the poor of proper representation.
Despite a universal condemnation of cash limiting, two key speakers were significantly more accommodating to the Lord Chancellor's proposals than the Law Society.
Ann Abraham, chief executive of the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, said the Green Paper was "imaginative and innovative" and did not rule out exclusive contracts.
Lady Wilcox, chair of the National Consumer Council, welcomed block funding which would "recognise the value of advice agencies". But she said the council was concerned about cash limits.
Meanwhile, Bar Council chair Peter Goldsmith proposed direct access to the Bar for advice agencies whose greater role he supported.
Earlier Lord Mackay fleshed out some of his proposals in a frank question and answer session with the 400-strong audience.
He agreed with Legal Aid Board chief executive Steve Orchard that franchising should monitor the quality of the service by measuring the outcome of cases and even tentatively floated the idea of league tables.
He also suggested contracts may not necessarily be awarded for a strict number of cases but for a general service.
Commenting on the added burden on solicitors caused by the recent wave of criminal justice reforms, he said he had expressed his concerns to his government colleagues.
Labour legal affairs spokesman Paul Boateng said his party intended to favour advice agencies and envisaged the provision of publicly funded legal services through exclusive contracts.