The impasse between the Law Society and the Legal Aid Board was resolved last week when the society's council voted to withdraw its advice to solicitors not to join the board's franchising scheme. The society's move fell short of a full-scale endorsement, however, leaving it up to individual firms to decide whether or not to apply for a franchise.
The outgoing Law Society president, Rodger Pannone, says that the board has 'moved very substantially in our direction. It does seem to have recognised that without the goodwill of practitioners, it would have been impossible to go ahead with such a complex new scheme.' The council was realistic enough to accept that a great many firms would probably have signed franchising contracts, with or without the society's blessing.
The Legal Aid Board is expected to begin offering contracts on 1 August. Sarah Harman of the Canterbury practice Harman & Harman is among those waiting for a letter to drop on to her mat. When she sent off her franchise application last October, she was tentative about the whole process, but her reservations have now largely dissipated.
'I have become quite convinced that franchising must be more good than bad,' she says. 'We have invested a lot in terms of commitment and person power; it has cost us a lot, but it has also benefited the firm a great deal, and it will benefit the client. In the end, we have got to be concerned about what's best for the client.'
Ms Harman was irritated by the 'terrible mixed messages' emerging from the Law Society. 'The society still wants any lawyer to be able to do legal aid work if the fancy takes him or her, but I don't agree with that,' she says. 'The client is entitled to know that the lawyer is capable of doing a specific task. The more we have qualifications - franchising, the specialist panels and so on - the better it is for clients.'
The process of gearing up for franchising was not without its problems, Ms Harman admits. 'We found the audit process extremely stormy, and on several occasions had second thoughts as to whether we wanted to proceed.' In the end, the firm scored well on its pre-contract audit, and has high hopes for a franchise in all eight categories in which it applied.
Also awaiting news of a franchise contract is the Tiverton office of the West Country firm Bevan Ashford. According to one of the firm's partners, John Smith, the Legal Aid Board has been extremely helpful.
'It has responded very quickly to specific requests for information. We have no complaint whatsoever,' Mr Smith says. 'From our point of view, the initial difficulty was discovering how much we actually had to do. We didn't know whether we were doing too much or too little.' The constant monitoring required by the franchising system has been helpful, he says. 'It's helped to make us more efficient because it has made us look at our procedures.'
He believes that some of the franchising requirements are a good discipline - the requirement to give the client a clear idea of the costs involved in a case, for example. There has been a tendency among solicitors not to do that, he acknowledges. The result can be a shocked client, however justifiable the amount of the bill.
Paul Rutter is a sole practitioner who set up his practice in Chepstow only nine months ago. He says that his franchising manager believes him to be unique - few people in his situation have been brave enough to apply for a franchise.
Mr Rutter's final audit has taken place, and he now waits to hear whether the board is to offer him a contract. 'So far, touch wood, I have no complaints,' he says. 'On the whole, I have been treated sympathetically.' His problems as a sole practitioner applying for a franchise have been largely to do with back-up, although he was fortunate enough to have an existing software system that met the board's requirements.
At the other end of the scale is the large Cardiff firm Loose mores. According to its franchise representative, Stephen Best, the firm - which has applied for eight categories - views franchising as a branch of the quality road. It has already acquired BS 5750, the British Standards Institute kitemark for service industries.
Loosemores decided to take steps to comply with franchising requirements at the same time, even though this produced some operational headaches, says Mr Best, who is also the firm's costs draftsman. Some extra work over and above the BSI requirements was needed to meet the requirements, he says. They did not conflict, but some were onerous.
'In a nutshell, the BSI said: 'Well, that's your system, now prove it works'. The Legal Aid Board said: 'Irrespective of whether your system works, this is what we want'. It was difficult, but we have done it.'
One of the benefits of gearing up for franchising has been a visible improvement in staff morale, and the board, he says, has been co-operative and open to discussion. 'If we have found certain things not working, they have welcomed our input.' Some worries still exist, however. 'There are certain things franchising is trying to do that are difficult to fit in with the idea of quality. I hope we can turn to the Legal Aid Board in a few months time if this or that is not working.'
Steve Orchard, chief executive of the Legal Aid Board, is pleased with the way things have gone. 'When you do something so new, it is inevitable that you learn as you proceed. I hope our understanding and ability have developed over the past six months.
'I'm not saying everything has been perfect from day one, but the process has been improved enormously because of the constructive views of practitioners and everyone else involved.'
According to Mr Orchard, the Legal Aid Board is satisfied with the general standard of applications. He says some have been turned down in one or more category, but only a 'very small number' have been refused outright.
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