Legal Aid

Solicitors hit out at LSC supplier scheme

PUBLISHED March 24, 2006

Legal aid solicitors have this week slated plans by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to roll out its preferred supplier scheme, amid fears they are being kept in the dark over funding and quality requirements and that the proposals may not tie in with Lord Carter?s long-term review of the system.

Launching a consultation this week on expanding the regime to all firms by 2009, the LSC said the system would benefit everyone as it would lead to less bureaucracy and favour the most efficient firms. It expects to be working with fewer ? but bigger ? firms as a result.

However, solicitors said the ideology behind the pilot had gone amiss in the plans, and complained the consultation had shown only scant detail.

The Legal Aid Practitioners Group said the scheme was a good idea but the lack of information was ?disappointing?. It also expressed concern that under the plans the LSC could exclude firms that are only of ?threshold? competence but that supply a valuable local service.

Director Richard Miller said: ?Issues such as how value for money is to be assessed will be crucial in developing a workable scheme. This paper leaves us none the wiser as to what the criteria will be. While we understand why this has been done, it is nonetheless disappointing.?

Stephen Hewitt, managing partner at London-based legal aid firm Fisher Meredith, which participated in the pilot, said there seemed to be an air of lethargy surrounding the scheme and predicted this would now be exacerbated. ?We need to see the financial basis for the Carter framework and we need to be allowed to get on with what we are good at,? he argued. But he added: ?I am not particularly optimistic that there will be a change in attitude from the LSC.?

However, the commission argued that it had worked closely with Lord Carter and said his review had ?clearly set the context for the proposals?. LSC service design executive Jonathan Lindley said: ?It is now time to move the system forward and start investing in raising the bar for firms and agencies from the outset, rather than having a time- consuming and expensive policing regime for those already in the system.?

Law Society President Kevin Martin said it would examine the proposals to ensure that they reduce the burden of bureaucracy for practitioners.

Meanwhile, the Law Society Council will next week vote on a proposal to abandon peer review for criminal defence solicitors. The motion is that ?the process of peer review for legal aid practitioners is no longer supportable in the absence of any increase in rates for publicly funded criminal defence work.?

Mr Lindley said he was disappointed. ?Peer review, which is widely supported by practitioners, is a vital way of ensuring [quality services].?