Editorial: Are GP-style practices the future of High Street legal aid?

What to do about the crisis in legal aid? This week the prospect of GP-style legal practices, with lawyers being paid in the same way as family doctors, raised its head. The idea is that firms would have a minimum practice income and funding would be “linked to the profile of the population in a practice’s catchment area, so that resources are targeted at those most in need”. Such radical thinking derives from Chancery Lane, not Whitehall, and is one of a number of imaginative ideas in a recent consultation paper. It starts from the depressing (but realistic) premise that if the exodus from legal aid continues unabated then the future of any publicly funded High Street profession looks decidedly grim.

“Publicly funded legal services are at a crossroads, with both funders and suppliers frustrated at the mechanisms for delivering services and for accounting to Government for expenditure from the public purse. It is crucial to establish a partnership based on trust, not bureaucracy,” says the Law Society. All lawyers swamped with the red tape of contracting by the Legal Services Commission and fed up with heavy-handed audits will endorse that sentiment.

Leading lawyers will be mulling over this and other bold ideas in advance of a debate by the ruling council later in the week. Other possible solutions include a salaried service for civil as well as criminal work, compulsory legal expenses insurance, and an extension of conditional fee arrangements.

Elsewhere another review of the profession is moving up a gear. Yesterday David Clementi published his terms of reference for his inquiry into the regulation of legal services. There are no prizes for guessing that one of five “key architectural issues” identified by the chairman of the Prudential was “new business structures, including employed lawyers and multidisciplinary practices”.

There seems little chance of cooling ministerial enthusiasm for the much-vaunted ‘Tesco Law’. Of course, this development is not unrelated to the fate of the High Street profession. “If firms lose more lucrative areas of work to competing banks and supermarkets, they may be unable to sustain publicly funded work,” Chancery Lane notes in its recent paper. “It is important to recognise that, and to ensure that it is taken into account in planning the future provision of publicly funded services.”

The observation was backed by some sobering statistics. Between January 2000 and June 2003, the number of solicitors’ offices with contracts in family law fell by almost one quarter (23 per cent). Of those firms undertaking publicly funded work, half obtain less than one fifth of their total fees from public funding. It is not hard to imagine that they would take little persuading to drop out altogether. Let’s hope that the Clementi review is listening.