The new fixed fees for civil legal aid cases will be introduced as planned from October 2007, following a High Court judgment today.
In his judgment, Mr Justice Beatson rejected The Law Society?s attempt to stop the new fees being introduced through its judicial review of the unified contract. Fixed fees are a desirable and necessary step in the move to a competitive market. The new fee schemes will help providers to prepare for competition, when they will be bidding on the basis of a fixed fee for a specified amount of work.
Welcoming the judgment, Carolyn Regan, Chief Executive of the Legal Services Commission (LSC), said:
"I am obviously pleased that the court has confirmed that it is lawful for the LSC to amend the unified contract to introduce the new civil legal aid fee schemes from October 2007.
"The legal aid reforms are specifically about maximising access to legal aid for the future. By achieving best value for money and rebalancing the overall budget to provide more funding for civil work we can continue to increase the number of people helped."
The Court decided that the contractual provision enabling the LSC to amend the unified contract in relation to fee levels and structures was lawful and not in breach of European Union procurement rules. However, the Judge accepted The Law Society?s argument that it did not comply with the requirements relating to amendments to the "technical specifications" of the contract. These "technical specifications" concern things such as peer review requirements and key performance indicators, but not fee levels and structures.
The LSC and Ministry of Justice will consider the judgment carefully in deciding whether to take forward any appeal.
The unified contract terms were subject to lengthy negotiations with The Law Society and other organisations. In many respects they are identical or very similar to the terms of the old General Civil Contract.
Any provider can terminate their contract in the event that they feel unable to continue providing legal aid following an amendment to the contract. This means that providers may terminate their contract, without penalty, before any future amendments are implemented.