Legal Services Commission faces widespread revolt as lawyers refuse to sign new legal aid contract

26 Mar 2007

As the 1st of April deadline approaches for legal aid lawyers to sign the new unified contract, family lawyers all over the country are refusing to sign and indications are that in some regions up to 70 per cent of family legal aid services could disappear immediately.

Resolution is calling on the Legal Services Commission (LSC) to listen to the very strong concerns being voiced by the profession and delay the date by which firms must sign the new contracts. One of the most contentious issues is the power the LSC will have to unilaterally change any aspect of the contract.

“The current timetable for the new contracts is nothing short of bullying and looks set to backfire. Strength of feeling on this issue is extremely high – the Legal Services Commission is facing a rebellion of untold proportions.

“Many of those refusing to sign are precisely the sorts of firms that the government will be looking to to become the ‘mega legal aid providers’ of the future, said David Emmerson, Chair of Resolution’s Legal Aid committee.

“In Oxford for instance, we are told that a reduction of almost 70 per cent of legal aid capacity to deal with family law issues is likely. Across England and Wales the number of family legal aid practices has already suffered a marked decline from 4,500 in 2000 to 2,800 in 2006 and this can only get worse.”

Flat rate fees for legal aid work may have superficial appeal – but in practice vulnerable people with difficult or complicated cases will find it virtually impossible to get help in the future.

“The Law Society has begun court proceedings to challenge the legality of the new contracts and the roll call of individual firms refusing to sign the new contracts grows hourly. The Legal Services Commission should, at the very least, wait for the outcome of the Law Society’s challenge before pressing ahead.

“Vulnerable people seeking legal help for domestic abuse or child protection issues will face real difficulty in finding local firms to represent them at all. At best they are likely to face waits of several weeks before being able to access help and advice. These delays could literally be a life or death issue for some,” said Mr Emmerson.