Legal Aid

Bigger may not be better

PUBLISHED June 22, 2006

The writing is on the wall for publicly-funded criminal law specialist solicitors. Well, if not on the wall literally, it is certainly in the research results seeping out in advance of Lord Carter?s final report on legal aid procurement.

The message from a Carter team-commissioned survey of the top 100 criminal law specialist firms produced one clear result ? big is more profitable and small will soon be extinct. According to the researchers, specialist firms with a gearing of a few equity partners supported by phalanxes of junior qualified staff or unqualified advisers are the most efficient and profitable providers of publicly funded services. And even though small firms have the lowest hourly costs, their model is unsustainable because of extremely low profit margins.

The groundwork is clearly being laid for Carter to propose that ?factory? crime specialist law firms are the way forward in terms of efficiency. But will they be the way forward in terms of access to justice? If small firms are forced to merge, or indeed, if they simply go under, will the gaps created be filled by branches of these large chain law firms? The Criminal Law Solicitors Association and the Legal Aid Practitioners Group have doubts. And it is difficult not to agree with them that one of the main problems in making criminal specialist law firms profitable is the current stagnant rate of remuneration.

Big might look better on paper, but Lord Carter and government ministers would be well advised to consider that the reality might be a huge justice gap