LAB set for block contract scheme

THE Legal Aid Board will be ready to launch a pilot block contracting project for legal aid lawyers in one year and hints that family solicitors may be the first targets.

Chief executive Steve Orchard says the board is best placed to launch a pilot scheme for Green Form work along the lines of the project it is currently running for advice agencies.

He says such a pilot could be set up “by this time next year” – but hints that the Lord Chancellor may want the board to concentrate on family work in line with the Lord Chancellor's divorce reform White Paper.

“We will be ready to start some form of piloting in 1996, it is difficult to see anything happening this year,” he says.

“It will be up to the Lord Chancellor to set the priorities, but legal aid cannot be seen in isolation and he might want us to concentrate on divorce reform.”

His revelations follow the publication of the board's annual report which reveals that so far 1,050 solicitors' offices have signed up for contracts.

There are currently 400 applications in progress and new applications are coming in at a rate of around 50 a month. The Board is in the process of hiring 60 more staff to deal with the backlog.

The Law Society's head of professional policy Russell Wallman says the figures highlight the “miserable failure” of the scheme given the Legal Aid Board's initial prediction it would have signed up 2,000 firms in its first year.

Wallman says the board's calls for greater incentives for firms include better payments on account, improvements in delegated powers and more flexibility.

Legal Aid Practitioners' Group chair Bill Montague says the figures show a great deal of work is still needed on franchising.

Anne Grosskurth, of the Legal Action Group, says it is unsurprising firms have showed caution in signing up to the scheme, but predicts that many more will join up once its “teething problems” have been solved. She says the group supports franchising because it is an indication of quality.