Elizabeth Davidson questions whether an effective set of reforms can be developed by the LAB within the Lord Chancellor's tight deadline.
ONLY legal aid practitioners who have spent the past five years with their heads buried firmly in the sand will be surprised by the imminent arrival of exclusive legal aid contracts.
When the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, announced 10 days ago that he wanted green form work to be delivered under exclusive contracts within two years there was only a murmur of protest.
The only surprise was the timing of the announcement and the tight deadline imposed on the Legal Aid Board (LAB) to come up with a workable scheme.
It has until the end of February to produce a consultation paper which must then be transformed into a detailed implementation plan by May.
Yet a pilot scheme to test the delivery of green form work under block contracts has only just got under way.
More surprising is the LAB's admission to The Lawyer that it will not receive a 'major' piece of research on the pilot until March after the consultation paper has been issued and only one month before the final details must be submitted.
More worrying still is the fact that the pilot itself is not due to finish until 1999 which is precisely when Lord Irvine has ruled that a national contracting scheme should be up and running.
But the LAB maintains that there is a crucial difference between the national contracting scheme called for by Lord Irvine and the block contracting pilots currently taking place.
Lord Irvine wants a halfway house between the existing free-for-all system whereby any lawyer can do green form work and the block contracting idea under which lawyers awarded the contracts have virtually complete control over how they spend their budget.
Little is known about exactly how the contracting scheme will work.
But it is clear that firms will undertake a fixed amount of work for a fixed price with the 13 Regional Legal Services Committees, which have been set up recently by the LAB, helping it to allocate the contracts by determining the need in each area.
According to LAB policy adviser Allison McGarrity, large and small firms will take part in the scheme to 'ensure there is appropriate access' to legal aid geographically.
McGarrity said only franchised firms would be considered for contracting. She added that the LAB did not want the scheme to be 'static' and that she expected there would be 'a system', as yet unknown, whereby new firms and practices without franchises could demonstrate quality to the LAB and gain access to the contracting programme.
The standard firms must aspire to if they want to be included has not yet been decided, although McGarrity said the franchise quality standard would remain and was 'likely to be developed'.
McGarrity added that the LAB expects exclusive contracting to develop into block contracting, a 'more sophisticated' contracting system which specifies the 'nature and range' of the contracts in detail as well as the amount and price for the work.
What does all this mean for law firms? The bottom line is that fewer of them will be able to do legal aid work and the LAB will hold all the cards. It will determine the quality standards firms will have to comply with, it will draw up the contracts and it will decide when to end them.
Legal Aid Practitioners Group executive committee member Bill Montague said some firms were already down-sizing their green form work along with other legal aid work in anticipation of the changes.
Of course many firms will survive, and even thrive. Many more, though, are likely to fall by the wayside.