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Solicitors to demand strike over legal aid

SOLICITORS' leaders will face calls for their first national strike next month, after it became clear yesterday that the Government had no intention of backing down over plans to reform legal aid payments.

Lord Mackay, the Lord Chancellor, indicated that he was willing to accept a consultant's report detailing standard fees for legal aid work in magistrates' courts.

The proposals are bitterly opposed by most solicitors, who want to keep the present system of payment on an hourly rate. They say standard fees will put pressure on firms to deal with cases as quickly as possible, even if it means neglecting important details.

Yesterday, the Law Society said the report had failed to meet its demands, leaving the two sides in what is becoming an increasingly bitter dispute as far apart as ever.

The society is particularly upset that the new system does not contain a separate provision for listening to tape recordings of police interviews with suspects, a time-consuming task.

Russell Wallman, head of professional policy at the Law Society, said: 'This does not go anywhere near to meeting our concerns.' Some firms faced potential losses of up to pounds 200 a case, he added.

The Government's apparent determination to press ahead with the changes is certain to prompt calls for a strike at a meeting of solicitors next month. So far, the profession's leaders have blocked demands for industrial action, but may now be willing to countenance it. They will be told the only way to persuade the Government is through a withdrawal from duty solicitor schemes in magistrates' courts and police stations.

However, Lord Mackay said yesterday that he wanted to implement the new structure this year.

Under the report, drawn up by the accountants, Price Waterhouse, solicitors outside London would receive pounds 127 for dealing with a basic guilty plea and pounds 295 for more complex cases involving a guilty plea. The most complicated cases would be assessed on an hourly rate as at present.

For a trial in a magistrates' court, solicitors would receive pounds 216 in a basic case, pounds 497 for a case that involved more work and would, again, be paid on an hourly basis for the most complex hearings. Solicitors in London would receive slightly higher fees.

Yesterday, Lord Mackay said the changes would have no effect on the overall legal aid budget.

But in its report, Price Waterhouse said the new system represented a mechanism for 'gaining speedy control of the rate of increase in expenditure on criminal legal aid' - something which is high on both the Lord Chancellor's and the Treasury's agenda. Last year, the legal aid fund increased by 35 per cent to pounds 760m.