Law Soc rubbishes Bar Council legal aid paper

A Bar Council consultation paper calling for a Contingency Legal Aid Fund has been rubbished by the Law Society which says it does nothing to bring the debate forward.

The Bar has produced a consultation paper inviting the Government to undertake a fully-costed feasibility study of a self-financing Contingency Legal Aid Fund.

Under the plan, applicants requiring financial support for legal costs would receive their fees from the fund in return for a fixed payment back into the fund in proportion to the size of their damages, if they are successful.

But Law Society Policy Director Russell Wallman said the Bar Council's paper was merely going over old and discredited ground.

“It fails to take the debate forward in any way,” said Wallman. “It fails to take account of the flaws with such a fund, which have been well identified.”

The society believes that if there is a contingency or fixed fee type fund, cases with a good chance of success will subsidise the weaker ones.

Instead the society wants a conditional fee system where the final fee is not a set proportion of the damages recovered but instead a percentage fee assessed individually on the risk of the case when legal aid is granted.

“This is set out in a paper we put out two years ago which the Bar Council obviously didn't read,” said Wallman.

However a Bar Council spokeswoman defended its initiative, saying the concept of contingency fees has broad support among the legal profession and consumer groups.

“A conditional fees arrangement isn't the answer to the problem of access to justice,” said the spokeswoman. The Bar argues that under conditional fees lawyers are reluctant to take on high-risk cases.

A wide range of groups, including consumer groups, the Legal Aid Board, the Lord Chancellor's Department and Sir Peter Middleton, who is undertaking a review of legal aid, will be asked to comment on the Bar Council's paper.