Legal Aid

Finance fears fail to halt legal aid reform

PUBLISHED March 22, 2007

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) vowed this week to press ahead with its controversial reforms to criminal legal aid, shrugging off research it commissioned that revealed the ?highly fragile? financial position of many defence firms.

A report by leading law firm finance consultant Andrew Otterburn ? delivered in November 2006 but only released by the commission last week ? concluded that the cumulative effect of Lord Carter?s recommendations to introduce fixed fees and competitive tendering, combined with the reintroduction of means testing and the effect of fixed penalties, ?could drive a number of firms out of business?. He advised the LSC in his report to delay proposed fee cuts and extend the transition period for the reforms.

Mr Otterburn told the Gazette: ?The need to proceed carefully through the transition is as great now as when I wrote the report.?

The findings support what the Law Society and many practitioners have claimed over recent months, and the report?s publication comes ahead of a rally and lobby of Parliament by defence solicitors next week.

Greg Powell, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors? Association (LCCSA), said: ?It?s incredible that the LSC should be ploughing on and ignoring the stricture to proceed with caution ? they are doing the opposite and seem completely oblivious to the risk.?

Law Society Vice-President Andrew Holroyd said it is not too late for the government to admit that the proposed reforms are doomed to failure ?unless they are substantially reworked.?

A spokesman for the LSC claimed the report was limited in that it only looked at the transitional period for Lord Carter?s original proposals, rather than the current ones. ?Mr Otterburn made some valuable points which we have taken on board in the changes we have made.?

In particular, he said the introduction of best-value tendering had been brought forward by a year, and the introduction of the fixed fees scheme had been delayed. The report only reflected Mr Otterburn?s personal opinions, he added.

The rally at Parliament will take place on 19 March at 2.30 in Old Palace Yard. In addition London practitioners will take action from 20-22 March in a repeat of their protest last month, when they stayed away from court and instructed one agent to act on their behalf.