Lawyers will have to submit competitive bids, pledging to conduct all their publicly funded criminal work at police stations and magi- strates' courts for a certain price, under radical propo-sals announced by the legal aid Services Commission.

It is the first time solic-itors have been asked to bid against each other on price to win legal aid aid work, which is currently paid according to fixed hourly rates. The pilot scheme will be tested in

London, which accounts for more than 20 per cent of the criminal legal aid aid budget, but will be rolled out across the country if it cuts costs.

The plan is part of the government's drive to curb the legal aid aid bill which has spiralled to Pounds 2.1bn in recent years. It has ordered a "fundamental review" of the entire system.

But lawyers' groups, including the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, the Criminal Bar Association and the Solicitors' Association of Higher Court Advocates, insisted the plans would be "disastrous" and refused to rule out a boycott of the new system, which could begin as early as next January.

Angela Campbell, president of the lccsa, said: "This proposed approach will result in forcing local high street solicitors out of business and the public will suffer as a result . . . We will resist these proposals with every means possible."

The LSC, the body that administers legal aid aid, said competitive tendering worked in other areas of public service and was needed to make cost savings in the Pounds 535m bill for legal aid aid in lower criminal courts. It insisted the plans could help solicitors' firms by providing greater certainty of income, encouraging efficiency and creating an opportunity to expand by bidding for work.

But it acknowledged the plans would mean a cut in the "oversupply" of 500 legal aid aid firms in London. Jonathan Lindley, the LSC's executive director for service design, said: "legal aid aid can be profitable for good quality, efficient suppliers. There is no target to cull but I think it is likely that there will be fewer firms."

Under the plans, which are open to consultation, solic-itors would first be tested on the quality of their advice. Those that passed would then bid a price per case for a percentage of available duty solicitor work in 10 to 15 zones in the capital. The lowest bidders would be paid the agreed price per case, regardless of the time spent.

The plans could cause some firms to link up to mount bigger bids and achieve economies of scale. But the solicitors' groups said between 150 and 230 of the smaller criminal legal aid aid firms in the capital would be vulnerable.

The LSC said there would be safeguards to prevent predatory firms underbid-ding, cherry-picking less complex cases or spending less time on cases to meet tight budgets.

The average legal aid aid bill for a solicitor's advice at a police station is Pounds 400, with fewer than 1 per cent of more serious cases costing more than Pounds 1,000. Solicitors earn about Pounds 42 an hour for police station work, according to lawyers' groups. The average magistrates' court case costs Pounds 700.

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