Bar presses Mackay on block contracts

BARRISTERS have claimed a moral victory over the Lord Chancellor on block legal aid contracts.

At the Bar Council's open meeting on legal aid last week the Lord Chancellor failed to explain how solicitors would be stopped from “keeping all the money” under block contracts.

During a question and answer session, Lord Mackay was repeatedly asked how quality could be measured under the proposals.

Barristers claimed solicitors would have a conflict of interests under a system where they controlled the purse strings.

One speaker from the floor said: “If the Legal Aid Board washes its hands and turns over legal aid to the solicitors, the thrust and incentive for the solicitor is to employ the cheapest possible person that he can,

regardless of the interests of justice and the interests of the client.”

As the meeting closed, Bar Council vice chair David Penry-Davey QC said he had secured an assurance from the Lord Chancellor as he was leaving that he would rethink his proposals if the Bar could demonstrate the unattainability of quality criteria. Earlier Lord Mackay had admitted that devising quality criteria for contracts was a challenge. He called on the Bar to come up with some suggestions.

He admitted to the meeting: “If you give money out to people without quality controls then they keep as much money for themselves and give out as little as possible. That is human nature.”

In his opening speech he had reassured the Bar that he had no intention of overseeing its demise.

But members of the junior Bar claimed standard fees, in which solicitors already held the purse strings, were already squeezing barristers out of the magistrates courts.

They said block contracts would have a similar affect in the Crown Courts.

After the meeting, legal aid and fees committee chair Peter Birts QC said the event had been a well informed debate which exposed the scheme's problems.

He added: “My impression is that the cupboard is bare and this is a piece of Treasury driven radical thinking which is misconceived because of the great strides which have been made in recent years in curbing the growth in legal aid.”