Casting his eagle eye over legal aid

Sir Tim Chessells's job is to end the misuse of taxpayers' money. Critics say he is a hardline Tory.

Sir Tim Chessells recalls a recent conversation with a High Court judge. "I told him I still felt fairly naive because I was troubled by green-form abuse - not so much its level but the fact that it existed, and that I still felt anxiety about the difference between what a private citizen would be advised to do if he was paying for legal work himself and what an assisted person ends up doing because the board is paying the cost. I said to the judge that doubtless I'd get over all that. He said: 'Don't'."

Sir Tim, one feels, was chosen to take over this year as Legal Aid Board chairman because the ways of the law would come as a shock. He had finished overseeing the closure of London hospitals as chairman of North-East Thames Regional Health Authority, and is an accountant by profession, specialising in management consultancy, and retains jobs in the commercial world. As was no doubt intended, he sees every penny of legal aid as taxpayers' money.

"They might say abuse of green-form aid is small in terms of the total, but it's a misuse of taxpayers' money and is carried out by people who are members of a profession. That system has to be changed."

But he recognises that the well-publicised frauds, and the equally well- publicised one-off cases of apparently odd grants of legal aid - to a New York actress suing her British piano restorer, to seemingly wealthy businessmen - are not the heart of the legal aid crisis. Rather it is the growing demand for law, with a fixed amount of money to provide it. Doing nothing is a bigger risk than moving forward, he believes. "If one's not following the process that will lead to changes which are well thought out and discussed, one runs the risk of some event taking place that brings forward hurried legislation, which is rarely satisfactory."

The Legal Aid Board theoretically only advises, while the Government legislates, but in reality nothing would be done that Sir Tim or his colleagues said was unworkable. Thus their response next month to the green paper, which they have promised will be published, is eagerly awaited.

He is seen by opponents as a doctrinaire Tory planted in the post to follow an agenda - fresh from carving up the health service to save money, regularly meeting Conservative grandees at the Carlton Club, where he is a member. The reality is more pragmatic than doctrinaire:

"I think you go as fast as you can, consistent with doing the job properly. That sounds trite, but it means change to the system is carefully planned, carefully monitored, and you have pilot projects before you go ahead."

He doesn't see his Conservatism as the potential problem some others do: he suggests a timetable for legal aid reform that would take us well past the next election. "My sense would be that to get from where we are now to an end point would take three to four years." His own three years in office will take him at least a year past an election that Labour looks likely to win.

He is reluctant to give away too much about the forthcoming response to the green paper, but he does suggest some possible answers to the most difficult questions a capped and block-granted structure would pose. Franchised solicitors would be stopped from picking the most lucrative cases and turning away the most complex by a combination of auditing the type of work they were doing, and by the remaining degree of competition between franchised solicitors.

Would the green paper proposals mean more paperwork for solicitors of the sort that bedevils hospital doctors? Not necessarily, he feels. "If we go down the contracting route, we've got to develop a system that satisfies assurance of the quality without imposing an enormous bureaucracy." Would it lead to a growth of administrators in the regional legal aid boards? "At the moment you have a system inevitably transaction-dominated, which hinges round the individual cases. The green paper envisages something contract driven. What people refer to as the bureaucracy will need to devote its attention to compliance with the contract, measurement of results. I don't think that implies increased bureaucracy, I think it implies a changed role."

Critics have asked how quality of work can be measured under the proposed system, and there is fear in the profession that it will be equated to success rates. Sir Tim says not: "I think the test has ultimately to be based on understanding of what the competing providers do, and a recognition by the users and contractors of who does it well, like any other process. Certain retailers produce good quality. That's a reputation built up over many years."

Will there be as few old-established solicitors and barristers in 10 years' time as there are old shops in a typical high street in 1995? Sir Tim is sure the Lord Chancellor will make sure his reforms of legal aid and the civil legal system ensure both branches of the profession survive as now. But he warns: "If cases demand earlier settlement, and because in the view of many people there should be greater use of non-legal remedies and other agencies, while the political reality is that there should be roughly a fixed sum of money for legal aid, something has to give."

What the practitioners say

Leaders of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, representing 700 firms, say the radical changes are unnecessary, because for the past two years the legal aid budget has actually been underspent.

Bill Montague, co-chairman and a Reading solicitor, argues: "Whatever the Lord Chancellor says, cash limits will mean some people who clearly need and deserve legal aid will not get it because the budget has run out for their kind of case in the area in which they live.

"The block contract proposals will make the problem worse. Working within a fixed budget for a contracted number of cases of a particular type, solicitors will be reluctant to take on unusual and high-cost cases. There is evidence from the health service of patients with complex cases being turned away by hospitals because of the costs and poor prospects, which affect 'success rate'."

The group suggests "there is considerable scope for fixing and controlling fees" for barristers and experts such as doctors in legally aided cases.

The Bar Council, representing barristers, the Law Society, the solicitors' body, and the Legal Aid Board, which administers the money, have all been granted more time for their responses to the Green Paper. The closing date should have been the end of August, but the Government has recognised that legislation is unlikely to be ready in time for the next session.

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