The government is encouraging barristers to proceed “full steam ahead” with plans to compete with solicitors’ firms for legal aid block contracts, it has emerged.
Speaking this week at an event in London, Peter Lodder QC, chairman of the Bar Council, also revealed that a government consultation on competitive tendering for legal aid contracts could be launched as early as the end of May.
Mr Lodder said ProcureCos – the add-on companies designed to help chambers provide a full service – would be used to bid for contracts in order to ensure the primacy of barristers. It is “desirable for chambers to hold the purse strings and to instruct solicitors and or others as they see appropriate”, he told the event on ProcureCos, hosted by legal software suppliers IRIS.
In planning to bid for criminal legal aid contracts, for example, the Bar seeks to alter the balance of control between solicitors and barristers in the Bar’s favour, said Mr Lodder: “We look to an advocacy-focused organisation which pays for attendance at the police station and litigation work as disbursement costs.”
ProcureCo is also the Bar’s response to a more generalised threat to the its position presented by solicitors, “Any criminal practitioner will tell you of the increase in the number of defence solicitor higher court advocates in robing rooms up and down the land,” he observed.
Mr Lodder, who had met with justice minister Jonathan Djanogly just hours earlier, said the minister believes the Bar is well-placed to compete against solicitors’ firms; the government perceives chambers to be more flexible than solicitors’ firms, especially if they band together to bid jointly for contracts.
Mr Lodder said the minister told him: “In relation to ProcureCo, the Bar must move full steam ahead on their proposals.”
A Ministry of Justice (MoJ) spokesman would confirm only that a consultation on competitive tendering will take place during 2011. Mr Lodder said Mr Djanogly indicated it would follow the government’s reply to its consultation on legal aid reforms, which ended last month. It has been rumoured that 5,000 responses were received.
Mr Lodder said the Bar’s strategy is to align itself with the government: “We stay close to the government in the hope that they will shape what is to come in a way that is as favourable to the Bar as can possibly be achieved,” he said.
He added that the Bar has “sympathetic ears” in government, but that economists in the MoJ and elsewhere “do not ‘do’ sympathy”.
He acknowledged concerns among barristers that chambers are at a disadvantage when competing against solicitors’ firms familiar with contracting, and which often understand their costs base better.
The Bar Council is in discussions with the MoJ and the Legal Services Commission over the form of contracts, he said. The current contract is “massive” and for negotiating purposes the Bar has drafted a “fresh contract which is a small fraction of the size”.