LAB contracting plans will restrict access to justice, say lawyers' groups

The Legal Aid Board's (LAB) proposed contracting of civil legal aid work will reduce choice for clients and turn the family lawyer into an “endangered species”, according to solicitors' pressure groups.

The LAB's consultation paper, published last week, proposes restricting family contracts to between 2,000 and 3,000 firms, not-for-profit contracts to between 200 and 300 firms and non-family private practice contracts to between 100 and 200 firms by the turn of the century. Firms without contracts will not get civil legal aid, worth in total about £130m a year in England and Wales.

Contracts will be fixed-price and run for three years with a review every year to check the firms are billing more than 90 per cent of the amount they are getting paid.

LAB chairman Steve Orchard said “significantly” tougher quality standards will be introduced on 1 August 1999 for all franchised civil legal aid firms and that practices will have to make “commercial decisions” whether they want to do legal aid work.

He promised contracts would be flexible enough to cope with unpredicted floods of new work a key demand of critics.

Orchard claimed that the new scheme marked a “fundamental change” for legal aid, because it “targeted community needs rather than being totally reliant on the legal profession in shaping it”.

Need will be determined on a regional basis, according to the advice of 13 Regional Legal Services Committees.

Legal Aid Practitioners' Group chair Andy Wilson accused the LAB of taking a “cavalier approach” to the new scheme by offering a “woefully short” consultation period of six weeks (the deadline for comments is 31 May) and claimed the changes would have a “brutal” effect on freedom of choice for clients.

Solicitors Family Law Association legal aid spokeswoman Philippa Pearson said that the proposals made the legal aid family lawyer an “endangered species”.

She said: “The Lord Chancellor has said repeatedly that he believes there is no shortage of family lawyers willing to undertake legal aid work. That may be the case at present but it will not be the case in the near future.”

Law Society policy executive Natalie Breeze said she was concerned about the effect reducing the number of firms able to do Green Form work would have on clients' access to justice and on the 2,208 individual offices currently franchised to do such work, some of which belong to the same firms.