Fears that government reforms of legal aid would slash solicitor numbers has led to a rethink, says Mithran Samuel
News that ministers are prepared to reconsider proposed family legal aid fees – so long as any increases are balanced by savings elsewhere – is testament to the strength of practitioners’ reaction to original plans published in July.
Family solicitors had predicted government proposals to reform legal aid would dramatically reduce the number able to practice, denying justice to vulnerable children and families.
Now ministers look set to consider concessions, but professionals say they will need to be substantial to allay the concerns.
Solicitors working on child care cases (public law) and those involved in contact and resident disputes (private law) between parents say current rates mean firms barely profit from such work.
But the reforms, despite claims they would be cost-neutral for both public and private law, would make things far worse, they say.
Hourly rates for court work would be replaced by “graduated fees”, with fixed payments for each stage of the process.
A Law Society survey of nearly 400 members last month illustrated the scale of concern. Ninety-eight per cent thought private law practitioners would see a drop in income, with 70 per cent of these predicting a fall of more than a quarter. Ninety-three
per cent thought fees in care cases would fall. Of these, 77 per cent predicted a drop of more than a quarter.
Andrew Greensmith, chair of Resolution, which largely represents private law practitioners, says the proposals will lead to legal aid solicitors being concentrated in big cities, as firms either close or merge.
“I think it will be impossible for a solicitor to practise legal aid in a market town,” he says. “There will be deserts of advice.”
The Association of Lawyers for Children (ALC), which lobbies on public law issues, has said numbers able to represent children and parents in care cases will be “decimated”.
There is evidence of a decline in available practitioners.
Julia Brophy, senior research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Family Law and the ALC’s education and training officer, says her research suggests the child care legal workforce is ageing, but the government’s plans will prevent sufficient new blood coming through.
Both Resolution and the ALC are calling for more money. But the government is adamant that the legal aid bill needs to be controlled. Though overall costs in private law are in decline, bills for child care cases more than doubled from 1999- 2000 to 2004-5.
Andrew Webb, co-chair of the Association of Directors of Social Services children and families committee, believes many child care cases are unnecessarily extended due to legal argument and the removal of hourly rates could “reduce perverse incentives” to make cases last longer than necessary.
However, Brophy says the welldocumented delays in the child care legal system result from other parties, including councils.
Consultation on the proposals ends on 12 October.
● Legal Aid: A Sustainable Future
● The Association of Lawyers for Children claims the number of firms with legal aid cntracts in family law has fallen from 4,593
to 2,784 since 2001.
● The number of practitioners eligible to epresent children in care cases has fallen. From Agust 2002 to August 2006 the number of hildren’s representatives on the Law Society’s cildren panel dropped from 1,872 to 1,569.
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