HENRY Hodge, the vice-chairman of the Legal Aid Board (LAB), has confirmed the worst fears of many legal aid lawyers by warning that soon only franchised firms will be able to do legal aid work.
At the Labour Party conference last week, Hodge also revealed that the LAB “confidently expected” personal injury cases to be excluded from legal aid under the Government's reforms saving the LAB £20m.
He also called for a public defender pilot scheme in England and Wales.
“Only people who have a licence will be able to do legal aid work,” Hodge told the Legal Action Group (LAG) meeting.
He pointed out that only half of the civil legal aid budget is currently channelled though franchised firms.
Hodge said a public defender system, currently being piloted in Scotland, should also be tested somewhere in England or Wales, as part of the Government's drive to spend legal aid more efficiently.
He said: “I think Labour should have a serious experiment with a public defender system… It will be met with howls of protest from the Law Society and the Bar. It will be difficult but we think an experiment should be tried.”
Significantly, the Solicitor General, Lord Falconer, who would play a key role in introducing a public defender system, was present at the meeting.
Last week Sir Peter Middleton, the chairman of BZW, delivered his long-awaited report on legal aid and the civil justice system to the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, who is expected to announce his reform plans later this month – possibly at the
Solicitors Annual Conference where he is due to speak.
Hodge said that the Government would “get a grip” on top silk's fees and warned practitioners that fixed fees would be the order of the day and that they should expect to do “more work for less pay”.
Vicki Chapman, head of policy at the LAG, supported Hodge's call for a public defender pilot but said LAG would be very concerned if personal injury cases were left to be covered by the as yet unproven conditional fees.
See Labour Party conference report, page 52