Cutting family legal aid firms by half

Reports suggest that over 1,000 solicitors firms who had family contracts previously have just been told that they have been unsuccessful in their bids for new contracts, with the numbers cut from 2,400 to 1,300.  The impacts on these firms will be serious, many will appeal and the Law Society is apparently collecting evidence for litigation; but what will the impact on clients be?

The LSC has indicated the contracts cover a similar number of cases (or matter starts) as previously. So they will argue a smaller number of firms doing the same number of cases is more efficient. This may well be true if firms do all the cases they are allocated, but there are a number of problems with this position:

1. As I understand it, firms are not obliged to do all the matter starts they are allocated.  It would ordinarily be in their interests to do so of course, but if they do not attract the kinds of clients they want in sufficient number then the number of clients helped under the new arrangements will diminish.

2. If firms are less geographically dispersed then clients in certain areas will find it harder to access lawyers and give up.  I have heard reports that there are only 5 or 6 providers in the whole of Cornwall for instance.  We know referral fatigue is a real problem, and there is some evidence that clients are reluctant to travel.  Phone-based advice may be a partial solution to the problem but I wonder how the Legal Services Commission will monitor and seek to ensure geographical coverage: there has never been very convincing data on this inspite of the availability of client postcodes.

3. There are also complaints that often ‘good’ firms have not got contracts. This kind of claim is inevitable where the numbers cut are so big:  good firms will indeed have lost contracts and who is going to say that the firms that lost contracts are not good?  The key issue here is whether the ones who got contracts are of poorer quality. That’s impossible to say from my vantage point.  However, interestingly, in at least one area I am told that none of the solicitorss that do Guardian work in public law children cases got contracts. That does seem to me to be evidence of a serious problem with the decisions, which may indicate a quality problem. If it is true more widely then that will pose serious issues about the contracting decisions. If the impact on public law cases is serious, there will be significant political interest, at a time when that part of the justice system is showing particular signs of strain.

I also understand one reason for tender decisions may be that some firms misunderstood the importance of domestic violence work or, in the absence of a recognised specialist accreditation, failed to identify themselves as ‘specialists’ in domestic violence.  An interesting issue will be whether they were as specialist as those who identified themselves and who’s ‘fault’ the non-identification as specialist was.  Keen watchers of the LSC would know they have expressed concern in the past at the lack of domestic violence work.

It should also be noted that savings to the legal aid budget from reducing the number of suppliers (given the number of matter starts should remain the same) are likely to be modest.  That’s not in and of itself a criticism of the LSC, they need to make savings where they can, but it puts the risks posed by these changes into perspective.  It also serves as a warning: this change is not going to contribute significantly to the upwards of 25% cuts expected in legal aid.  In other words this kind of pain is just the beginning.  There is much worse to come and it will be unarguable that clients will suffer.

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Readers may like to know Resolution are conducting a survey of family legal aid lawyers on the family contracting decisions.  Anyone wishing to evidence the impact of the concerns in their area can also leave comments below: I’d be most interested.

Richard Moorhead has acted as special adviser to Parliamentary Select Committees on legal aid three times.

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About Richard Moorhead

Director of the Centre for Ethics and Law and Professor of Law and Professional Ethics at the Faculty of Laws, University College London with an interest in teaching and research on the legal ethics, the professions, legal aid, access to justice and the courts.
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