The Legal Services Commission (LSC) is set to sack a quarter of its staff in a massive cost-cutting exercise, it emerged this week ? as the Lord Chancellor also dashed any remaining hopes harboured by legal aid practitioners that more money will be put into the system.

Speaking at the Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) annual conference in Bristol, LSC chairman Sir Michael Bichard said up to 450 of its 1,800 staff could get the boot as a result of changes designed to save ?6 million in administrative costs over the next five years.

Sir Michael said: ?The efficiency gains that these changes will bring, together with the simplified processes that we believe the preferred supplier pilot project and e-business will make possible, mean that by 2010 we anticipate that we will need between 400 and 450 fewer people working for the commission.? He added: ?As a chairman, I could not ask you to look at achieving value for money if my own house was not prepared to do the same.?

An LSC spokesman told the Gazette some 300 jobs could be lost in regional offices dealing with operational work such as assessing bills, with another 100-150 going in the LSC?s contracting department.

But new CLSA chairman Ian Kelcey, a partner at Bristol firm Kelcey & Hall and a member of the Law Society Council, said he feared the changes could lead to delays in vital elements of firms? work, such as prior authorities and bill assessments. ?Will the savings be channelled back into the legal aid fund?? he demanded after the conference. ?Because I estimate them to be about ?10 million.?

Also speaking at the conference, the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said although the government valued legal aid practitioners and appreciated that they had a difficult job: ?There is no prospect of extra money until the next spending review, which is in 2007 ? and even then, on current predictions, there is unlikely to be any extra money.?

Responding to complaints from practitioners about uncertainty over competitive tendering, Lord Falconer added that he was ?very well aware? of the objections, adding that no decision will be made until the Carter review has reported; he insisted this would happen by 31 January 2006.

But Rob Brown, past president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, said practitioners in the capital, who are destined to be the first guinea pigs in the tendering pilot if it is approved, were pessimistic. ?Carter is only going to work within the envelope and reduce the spend, so actually the position for us is going to get worse,? he predicted. ?Whatever comes out of Carter will mean less money being paid to lawyers.?

Former CLSA chairwoman Helen Cousins said criminal defence solicitors were now dropping like flies, and the situation was not being helped by ?failed experiments? such as the Public Defender Service and CDS Direct. ?It seems to me that we are at the eleventh hour so far as defence practice is concerned,? she warned.

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