Mackay snubs Law Soc aid plan

THE LORD Chancellor has dismissed the Law Society's blueprint for legal aid reform and called for a more imaginative response to his own radical proposals.

A cash-limited legal aid fund and the restriction of legal aid delivery to franchised firms are central tenets of the Lord Chancellor's reform Green Paper.

The proposals are vigorously opposed by the Law Society and the Bar Council along with an array of special interest lawyers' groups.

But Lord Mackay rejected the Law Society's claims that improvements to court procedures and a “sensible” streamlining of legal aid was the best way forward.

He said the society's 'Design for the future' consultation document failed to address the fundamental problem of a growing legal aid budget.

“I expect all that would happen is the budget would grow again,” he said, calling for a more imaginative response to his plans.

Law Society president Charles Elly says “crude cash limits” and the tendering of a limited amount of contracts to the lowest bidding solicitors “would be a disaster”.

Bar Council chair Peter Goldsmith describes the proposals as “old fashioned planned economics” and warns of small numbers of suppliers handling cases “in the cheapest possible way to make money for the lawyers”.

The Green Paper was widely trailed and there were few surprises in the final document.

Key elements include:

– Block contracts to cover type, quality, volume and price of services through franchised “quality controlled” law firms and advice agencies.

– Predetermined budgets for criminal, family and civil non-family legal aid.

– A pilot project extending legal aid to tribunals.

– Contracts for family mediation and a mechanism to steer couples away from the courts.

– Solicitors and other suppliers to assess eligibility in “almost all civil cases” and perhaps in criminal legal aid as well.

– Solicitors to engage and agree fees with barristers.

– Expansion of conditional fees and possible use as an alternative to legal aid.

Launching the Green Paper, Lord Mackay said too much money was being channelled into costly legal solutions under the current system and contracts would encourage providers to “look for different ways of solving problems”.

Regarding barristers' fees, he said a system which led people to believe the money would never run out was “not entirely to the tax payer's advantage”.

He said the sole practitioner who dealt with a small number of legal aid cases would not have a high chance of winning a contract but the specialist would be well placed.

John Malpas