Pressure is mounting on the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to defer the introduction of the new unified contract for civil legal aid, after the Law Society threatened an action for judicial review and a poll revealed that some 58% of law firms may refuse to sign.
With the 1 April deadline approaching, an increasing number of firms across the country have indicated they will quit legal aid work rather than sign the new contract, which critics argue allows the LSC to unilaterally terminate a contract on six months? notice and amend its terms without the requirement to act reasonably or proportionately.
Interim results of a web-based poll conducted by the Law Society showed that 11% of the 437 respondents will not sign the contract and 47% are considering not signing. A further 41% said their firms had reluctantly concluded that they had no option but to sign. Just 1% said they were happy to sign.
Calls to delay implementation also came as the Society threatened a legal challenge in a bid to remove those clauses that give the LSC the unilateral right to amend the contract. The Society has given the LSC 14 days to respond before it launches an action for judicial review, claiming the commission has acted unlawfully and ultra vires as the contract fails to comply with UK and EU legislation on public services contracts.
Leading human rights law firm Bindman & Partners, which has indicated it will not sign, has asked to be joined as an interested party to the action.
Law Society chief executive Desmond Hudson said: ?It is unfathomable that the government is still pushing ahead with these perilous reforms in their current form. It must stop being so cavalier about the risks to the legal aid system and reconsider the so-called reforms before it?s too late.?
David Emmerson, chairman of the legal aid committee at family lawyers? group Resolution, said: ?The current timetable for the new contracts is nothing short of bullying and looks set to backfire. Strength of opinion is extremely high ? the LSC is facing a rebellion of untold proportions.?
He said the commission should at least wait for the outcome of the Law Society?s challenge before pressing ahead.
Eileen Pembridge, senior partner at top south London legal aid practice Fisher Meredith, said her firm will not be signing the new contract. ?It is simply wrong and will bring about the demise of legal aid as we know it. Firms are worrying about whether or not they should sign. The fact is that if we do sign, we?ll all go out of business. It is better to stand together and show solidarity.?
Jenny Beck, managing partner of east London firm TV Edwards, whose senior partner, Tony Edwards, is a member of the LSC, told the Gazette her firm is not minded to sign the contract.
Ms Beck said: ?We have worked with the LSC over the years and had hoped to continue to do so. But we?ve been asked to enter into a relationship where there is no reciprocity ? it?s a David and Goliath situation. The contract as it stands will not enable us to protect our clients or our staff properly.?
An LSC spokesman said hundreds of civil legal aid practitioners had already signed the contracts and the timetable for introducing them remained unchanged. ?We believe there will be sufficient provision of advice for vulnerable clients when the unified contract becomes effective,? he said.