LAB acts on block contracts stalemate

THE Legal Aid Board is to write directly to 145 firms scheduled to take part in the green form block contract pilot this week in a bid to break the deadlock over the scheme.

The letters will make offers on each firm's individual payment arrangements, and will be followed “shortly” by revised contracts, according to a LAB spokeswoman.

Last month the Law Society Council officially advised the law firms not to take part in the pilot partly because solicitors involved in the “very complicated and elaborate” administrative system of the pilot were not being properly compensated for the extra work, said Natalie Breeze, Law Society policy executive.

The move promises to remove at least one of the stumbling blocks – namely, the failure of the LAB to tell participating firms how much they would be paid.

But the board has been attacked by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. LAPG chair Andy Wilson accused it of being “secretive”, “devious” and of using a “divide and rule” approach by not trusting the LAPG or the Law Society to negotiate on behalf of the firms.

The LAB's policy adviser, Allison McGarrity, said: “The board is negotiating on the form of the contract with the Law Society. There is no separate negotiation with firms. All firms will sign the same standard contract terms with differences for each of the three groups.

“The LAB will hold discussions with individual firms to agree the appropriate amount of payment under the contract to reflect their volume and range of work, but the same principles will be applied throughout all of the firms.”

The Law Society has been holding a series of meetings with legal aid practitioners on the pilots, with another one planned for London this week.

Last week Steve Orchard, LAB chief executive, agreed to grant additional payments for disbursements and allow the time spent completing forms to be included in the time required for the case. But the LAB still intends to price disbursements and legal work together, meaning extra disbursements incurred will cut into the overall budget allocated to the firms.