Monday 15 July 2013 by Catherine Baksi

There is 'little hope for the future' for sole practitioners and many small law firms under either the government's or Law Society's proposals for reshaping the criminal defence market, the Sole Practitioners Group has claimed.

The group's legal aid spokesperson, former chair Hilary Underwood, told the Gazette that under either plan, it is 'highly likely' that 'all sole practitioner and many small firms' will find themselves under threat of closure unless they are willing to enter consortia arrangements. This would raise 'many practical and ethical issues'.

Underwood supported the Society's proposals to reform tax rules for legal aid lawyers and the call for more prompt payments. While welcoming any alternative to the 'travesty to justice' that is price-competitive tendering (PCT), she said: 'I can sadly see little hope for the future of sole practitioners or small firms within those alternatives, any more than I can see a hope for them within a landscape framed by PCT.'

The Society's alternative seeks gradual consolidation of the market through adherence to tightening quality and capacity criteria. Initially firms must have a minimum of two solicitors, but this figure will increase year by year.

Underwood accepted that the Society's proposals would save a higher number of larger firms, but she said that would be achieved 'at the expense of the smaller ones'.

A Law Society spokesman said its strategy in engaging with government is to persuade it to shelve price-led competitive tendering and retain the important principle of clients being able to choose their solicitor. He accepted that its proposals are 'imperfect for some firms' but said they remain far better than the lord chancellor's original proposals.

A spokeswoman for the Law Society's Small Firms Division, which also represents sole practitioners, said: 'The division fully supports the Society's proactive and well-judged proposed alternative to the unworkable approach taken by the Ministry of Justice.'

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