The Queen's Speech: Legal Aid and Justice - Fixed-price contracts for lawyers

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The Independent Online
AN OVERHAUL of the Legal Aid system could result in some of Britain's most famous civil rights lawyers being prevented from taking up cases, the Law Society warned yesterday.

It said that a new government-run Criminal Defence Service (CDS), which will dispense contracts to lawyers for publicly funded criminal cases, might choose to hire only lawyers who had a reputation for "not causing trouble".

The CDS, announced in the Access to Justice Bill, is part of an ambitious plan to cut the bureaucracy and waste in the Legal Aid system. The service will hand out about 5,000 contracts a year for publicly funded criminal cases, which currently cost the taxpayer pounds 733m a year.

The contracts will be for a fixed price, agreed in advance and are intended to act as an incentive to lawyers to avoid delay and to work efficiently. A minority of cases will be handled by a small pool of "public defender" lawyers employed directly by the new service.

The Law Society said famous campaigning lawyers, such as Gareth Peirce, who helped to release the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six, and Jim Nichol, who represented appellants in the Carl Bridgewater case, might be shunned by the new body.

The Law Society said yesterday: "The greatest risk of this system is that a campaigning solicitor who makes trouble for the Government may be knocked out of the system by some insidious means."

Benedict Birnberg, Ms Peirce's partner at London solicitors Birnberg and Co, said such cases could not be made the subject of a simple contract and predicted that the reforms would lead to campaigning firms going out of business.

He said: "An enormous amount of work needs to be done on these cases simply to get them to court. Miscarriages of justice are not going to be uncovered and clients are not going to be able to get lawyers to represent them."

The Bar Council predicted yesterday that the changes would increase state control and a justice system geared to cutting costs.

Heather Hallett QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said: "This leads to a second-rate system of justice, a culture of uncontested cases and plea- bargaining where criminals are treated leniently and the innocent are punished for fear of a more severe sentence."

The Bill also provides magistrates' courts' committees with the powers to hire private security firms, with the powers to arrest fine defaulters and people who breach court orders. It is hoped that the measure, disclosed yesterday in The Independent, will lead to the collection of a further pounds 25m a year in fines.

Almost pounds 270m is owed to the Exchequer in unpaid fines, with more than pounds 51m being written-off last year.

Reform of the Court of Appeal will mean that litigants in civil cases will have the right to only two appeals instead of the current four.