Poor Likely To Suffer In Fees Dispute As Some Legal Aid Firms Hold Out

One of the biggest legal aid providers in London is among a number of law firms that have refused to sign a contract which alters pay by hourly rates to a system of fixed fees.

Many refuseniks blinked first and signed “under protest” last Friday, ending a bitter stand-off over the contract between some of the top firms in England and Wales and the Legal Services Commission. But some firms are digging in their heels.

Despite a last-minute concession extending the deadline to sign until 5pm today, the firms, including Fisher Meredith, one of the biggest legal aid providers in London with 85 lawyers, are holding out. The commission contract covers legal work concerned with domestic violence, child care proceedings and actions against the police, as well as welfare benefits, housing disrepair, and challenges to local authorities over community care.

The stand-off leaves thousands of poor people without access to justice. Solicitors say that the new fixed fee system will drive many firms out of business and leave some of the poorest and most vulnerable people unable to get access to legal services.

The contract is the start of a move towards a “market-based” system for legal aid, which will ultimately include price-competitive tendering for the work.

Those firms refusing to sign will get no monthly payments after this month and will be banned from taking on new legal aid work. The commission has told them they may continue with their existing cases until the work can be transferred to other firms. However, firms which reluctantly signed said they would decline to take on this work.

Ole Hansen, whose firm, Ole Hansen & Partners did not sign, said the dispute meant that in Lambeth, south London, 80% of legal aid provision for community care and housing cases, and 100% for welfare benefits would disappear.

The solicitors’ professional body, the Law Society, is expected to go ahead this week with a high court challenge arguing that the contract breaches public contracts regulations.

Among the firms that signed on Friday after threatening to refuse was Bindman & Partners, one of the top legal aid providers in the country. But it said it had signed only with “the most profound misgivings” and had earlier stated that the terms of the contract were “opaque and unfair”.

Eileen Pembridge, of Fisher Meredith, said: “This is an abusive contract with a future of slavery and gradual strangulation and decline, so as far as I’m concerned we’re out of it.”

The commission said 92% of legal aid suppliers had signed. Its executive director of policy, Richard Collins, said: “The new contract does not cut the legal aid budget. The reforms are about ensuring a greater proportion of the £2.1bn expenditure is available for civil legal aid.”