LAWYERS will have to bid competitively to win contracts for doing criminal legal aid work after the biggest changes to the ?2 billion scheme since its creation more than 50 years ago.

Under a new market-based model, all criminal legal aid lawyers will move to fixed fees ? rather than being paid by time spent ? and compete for contracts for work in police stations and courts.

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The reforms would stop a small number of top-earning barristers being paid ?1 million a year from legal aid, with funds being redistributed to those at the bottom end, whose rates have been frozen for ten years.

The change is also aimed at ending perpetual ?guerrilla warfare? between the legal profession and the Government, and what was described yesterday as a culture of ?whingeing and whining? over legal aid pay.

The reorganisation ? which could halve the number of the 2,500 legal aid firms and cause wide-scale mergers ? was outlined in a report by a review team under Lord Carter of Coles.

The team was appointed by the Lord Chancellor last summer to find a more efficient way to buy legal aid services and curb the spiralling cost of criminal legal aid, which has risen by 37 per cent since 1997.

Rank-and-file criminal solicitors said that the proposals meant ?pile them high, sell them cheap, when it comes to legal aid for the general public?.

Linda Woolley, the president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors? Association, said that the report was ?ill-considered? and ?apparently unsupported by any research?. She said: ?It will destroy not only the criminal defence system but the adversarial system within which it operates.?

The Bar and Law Society gave a guarded welcome to the report but gave warning that quality must not be sacrificed in the drive for efficiency, or access to justice damaged by a cut in the number of firms.

Stephen Hockman, QC, the Chairman of the Bar, said: ?We recognise that the legal aid system must be reformed and routinely reviewed if it is to retain public confidence and the support of the profession. Nevertheless, in these very large cases costs have risen and it is common ground that there is scope for more efficiency.?

THE SCHEME

  • Legal aid scheme moves to market-based model; lawyers bid for contracts
  • Hundreds of small firms expected to close in drive towards bigger practices
  • Law Society and Bar to control quality under price competitive tendering
  • Fixed fees for all work in police stations, Crown and magistrates? courts
  • Defendants? choice of lawyer limited to those winning place on panel
  • High-cost trials allocated under case contracts with strict cost controls
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