Legal organisations are furious that Legal Aid Board proposals for high-cost legal aid cases were revealed for the first time in the press last week. They accused the LAB of “policy-making by headlines” and “trespassing into the political arena”.
Lawyers were first made aware of the LAB's plans when they appeared as a report in The Times last Wednesday.
The proposals, which will cover legal aid cases costing more than £500,000, would force lawyers to conduct the cases for a fixed sum and would impose penalties for lawyers who pursue weak cases. Lawyers who lose cases which are deemed to be weak may receive only a third of their expenses.
An LAB official told The Times: “It's about sharing the risk and making them question the merits of going on at every stage. At present, the Board carries all the cost – win or lose. But they are the lawyers, they have all the information, they are best placed to judge the merits of the case.”
Director of the Legal Action Group Roger Smith has lambasted the Board, describing its approach to the issue as “constitutionally questionable and substantively ill-considered”.
The LAG is concerned at both the origin and the content of the LAB's proposals and has accused the the Board of crossing the acceptable line dividing the role of statutory agencies from their political masters.
The Law Society is also angered by the announcement, and accused the LAB of “glib headline-grabbing”.
A Society spokesman said: “If the merits test is not being applied properly it is the fault of the Legal Aid Board and not the fault of solicitors.
“This rather unpleasant, puerile, lawyer-bashing approach is sadly typical of the way the whole legal aid debate has been handled – everybody is to blame rather than the government which controls legal aid and the Legal Aid Board which administers it.”
However, an LAB spokeswoman was keen to play down the issue, emphasising that they were making proposals and not policy that was set in stone.
A consultation document outlining the proposals is due to be sent out to the profession on 21 February.