Papering over the cracks?

John Malpas examines the divisions caused by legal aid reforms

ANYONE doubting that legal aid reform did not arouse passions among practitioners and administrators alike need have looked no further than the recent Legal Action Group conference in London.

A passionate assault on the status quo by a leading Law Centre figure and a colourful outburst by an enraged Steve Orchard are the two enduring memories of the conference.

The incidents highlight the cocktail of accusations, suspicions and recriminations which have accompanied the Lord Chancellor's Green Paper.

While he may not have been impressed at the tenor of Orchard's famous retort to the claim the Legal Aid Board could not be trusted, Lord Mackay would have been encouraged by the dedication and commitment it showed.

His spirits would have risen further following a bitter attack by Brent Community Law Centre director Patrick Lefevre on his former soul mate Henry Hodge's qualified defence of the current system. It was “an outrage” to defend a system which ignored the poor, Lefevre had stormed.

The chances of a smooth ride for the reforms, which cunningly tie in the promise of better funding for Law Centres and advice agencies with exclusive cash limited block contracts, will be enhanced if the Law Society can be isolated in its uncompromising opposition.

And at the Law Society's

recent Wembley conference on legal aid, Law Centres Federation chair Isabel Manley warned: “If you had been living on precarious local authority funding for years and years you would also be tempted to go along with the scheme.”

Earlier National Consumer Council director Ruth Evans claimed the reforms were likely to give consumers a better deal.

But all is not lost for the Law Society. There is substantial common ground between all the sectors over the mechanisms outlined in the Green Paper. The Legal Action Group, for example, supports franchising. But director Roger Smith cheekily describes the system devised by Lord Mackay as “a curiously rigid form of provision, reminiscent of a Soviet command economy.”

Lefevre is delighted law centres and other advice agencies are at the heart of the new system but describes its mechanisms as cumbersome and is worried it will fail through lack of funds.

The Law Society clearly does have some room for manoeuvre, but only if it can keep its own troops in line. Talk of a split in the profession is hardly new, but there are fears legal aid lawyers will divide between those who feel they can exploit the new system and those who fear they will be forced out of business.

Janis Purdy, a sole practitioner from Bristol, was at the Law Society's conference. She is deeply worried by the talk of compromise that came from some quarters of a meeting which only voted down the proposition that block contracting “may be the way forward” by three votes.

“I had the strong feeling that the profession was once more going to be divided. Block contracts are going to go to the bigger firms and already part of the profession is being sucked into this.”

Purdy is fearful for the future of sole practitioners and the smaller high street firms if the Lord Chancellor gets anything like his way.

The figures speak for themselves. There are around 11,000 offices which deliver legal aid and it is widely believed the optimum amount of contracts practicable to administer would be from 2,000 to 3,000.

Robert Winstanley, the Law Society's courts and legal services committee chair, acknowledges: “You can't rule out, at the end of the day, that fewer practitioners will be doing the work.” But he adds that there will be strategies for the sole practitioner to pursue including the formation of a co-operative to run a contract.

Tony Edwards, of the prominent London legal aid firm T V Edwards, believes the demise of the small general practice and the generalist sole practitioner will be no bad thing.

“I don't see this as being something that will be a great shock because it has been happening for years anyway, the law is too complicated for the generalist,” he says.

But, significantly, Edwards is not a proponent of exclusivity. He believes block contracts would not prove economical for the smaller niche firms and practitioners which Lord Mackay claims would be well placed under the reforms.

The feared split between franchise holders and the rest has so far failed to materialise and Lyn Devonald, former chair of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, believes the common opposition to exclusivity and cash limits is enough to hold the profession together.

Solicitors in private practice from across the spectrum are certainly united in their indignation at what they see as a deliberate and unjustified attempt by the Lord Chancellor to blame the deficiencies of the current system on lawyers.

For all the talk of division the besieged mentality of the legal aid lawyer is just as likely to foster unity than to break the profession part.