Breathtaking Risk in Plans for Changes, Says Report; LEGAL AID

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Byline: By John Duckers Business Editor

A critical report from the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee on plans to overhaul Britain's pounds 2 billion legal aid scheme has been welcomed by Birmingham Law Society president Sukdev Bhomra.

The report says the Government is taking a "breathtaking risk".

Mr Bhomra has warned that many solicitors firms in Birmingham will go out of business if the proposed reforms go ahead. He believes the city's black and ethnic minority firms are particularly susceptible, as many offer legal aid services from High Street practices serving communities most at risk.

What's more, as more firms pull out of legal aid work, vulnerable individuals and groups will find it more difficult to get legal representation.

Under the plans, law firms will be forced to compete for legal aid contracts through competitive tendering and fixing fees.

According to Mr Bhomra, this will make it uneconomic for many to offer advice on areas such as crime, family and immigration law.

"Many people will be denied access to justice because they cannot get advice. Advice deserts are already starting to emerge. My own practice in Handsworth has been forced to withdraw legally aided family and immigration work because we cannot make it pay. Out of six firms in the area, only one is now offering immigration advice.

"Those firms who continue to make a living out of legal aid will be forced to use junior, less experienced staff to deliver the service. This is not in the interests of those seeking advice," he said.

The legal aid budget is administered by the Legal Services Commission. The CASC said there had been a "catastrophic deterioration" in relations between the LSC and law firms.

Mr Bhomra said: "Many of our members have reported that their relations with the LSC have soured. The system is mired in red tape and the administrative hurdles of dealing with legal aid cases have added to the burden."

The LSC recently announced that 90 per cent of firms offering legal aid had signed new contracts - which controversially combine the formerly separate civil and criminal contracts - with them. The LSC claimed this high level of sign up as an indication that the new terms of engagement were acceptable to law firms.

But Mr Bhomra said: "What I am hearing is that many firms have signed under duress, fearing that their monthly payments from the LSC would dry up. …