Poor may be disadvantaged by legal aid block contracts

The qUAlity of legal advice for the poor could nose-dive if block contracting proposals for criminal legal aid work are introduced, warned a top US specialist.

Addressing the Law Society of Scotland conference on crime and punishment last Monday, Robert Spangenberg, chair of an American Bar Association ad hoc committee on criminal defence, said proposals for contracting criminal legal aid work raised serious concerns.

Contracting systems under which firms are paid a fixed amount regardless of the number of cases undertaken – similar to those proposed for criminal legal aid in England and Wales, already operate in the US. Spangenberg said his experience was that the system did not work well. Better firms pulled out when they realised they could not afford to provide quality advice, he said. This opened the field to inexperienced or less scrupulous lawyers, he warned. In some cases, he said, lawyers successfully bid for the contract, then hired young people to do the work without proper supervision or training.

Spangenberg also caut ioned against the introduction of a public defender system, which tended to be overworked, underfunded and raised serious questions about the quality and effectiveness of the representation.