Solicitors have flagged up a long list of concerns over new ‘inflexible’ criminal legal aid contracts, including sanctions for bringing the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) into disrepute. ‘Despite our feeling that we had a positive engagement with the LAA during the consultation it seems few of our concerns were listened to,’ commented Law Society president Robert Bourns.
Chancery Lane highlighted one clause allowing the LAA to impose sanctions for behaviour likely to cause ‘embarrassment’ to the LAA which, it said, ‘could cause legal problems’.
Bourns said that, given the ‘economic constraints within the legal aid system and radical changes to the court system’, it was ‘disappointing’ that representations were ignored.
‘We are concerned, for example, the LAA insists on the provision of advice from a fixed office location that cannot be changed during the term of a contract,’ he continued. ‘Firms must be allowed room to adapt. Unfortunately, in important ways, this contract fails to afford them that flexibility.’
Whilst the Law Society noted a new clause requiring a solicitor to explain to the client the choice of a particular advocate for their case was ‘perfectly reasonable’, it added that insisting upon the process being repeated if a barrister pulled out the night before a hearing was ‘impractical and unnecessarily bureaucratic’. ‘This puts a burden on the solicitor when the barrister fails to show up,’ Bourns said.
Firms also needed the flexibility to move their office location when work is transferred between courts but, Chancery Lane reported, the LAA had ‘insisted on a clause which could restrict firms from moving to another area for legitimate business reasons for example, where the location of court has changed’.
Other key clauses in the contract include:
- A clause requiring 14 hours per week contract work to be restricted to a specific office – the Law Society argued that this placed ‘constraints on firms that operate a flexible model with fee-earners taking different parts of a case and working from different locations’;
- More rigorous requirements for duty solicitors;
- More rigorous IT requirements; and
- Ghost Solicitors and touting: The Law Society welcomed new clauses in the contract aimed at tackling the problem of ‘ghost’ solicitors on duty rotas; and reported indications that the LAA was ‘willing to continue to engage on some issues such as re-drafting of forms and tackling the issue of touting’.
More from the Law Society here on the key changes in the contract.
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