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Bad management hiked legal aid costs

19 May 2006

Bad case management, not greedy lawyers, is to blame for over £28m being spent in legal aid on two cases in 2004-5, according to the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG).

The LAPG came to the defence of legal aid lawyers after a letter from Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA) minister Harriet Harman QC to Labour MP Andrew Dismore revealed the most expensive criminal and civil legal aid cases last year cost £18.4m and £9.9m respectively.

“They are the total costs of particular cases, so the solicitors will still be receiving the same low hourly legal aid rates,” said LAPG director Richard Miller. “You’ve got to question why any case goes on for so long, and it comes down to the bad management.”

Manchester law firm Tuckers received £5,819,153 for the criminal case, a computer piracy trial, but senior partner Franklin Sinclair insists the firm did all they could to stop the costs from mounting.

“We tried at an early stage to suggest, QC to QC, that the prosecution should drop the criminal charges against our clients and obtain a civil injunction, as we could see the case – which ended up running for three years – was going to cost the public purse millions. However, this was rejected, as were our attempts to get the case contracted to the Legal Services Commission.

“One of our clients was put under house arrest for trying to contact witnesses via the internet, so we had to visit him there and the prosecution – the National Hi-Tech Crime Unit – presented us with between 1.5 and 2 million pages to read. In the end we had to employ 30 people on the case. I wouldn’t say the case was badly run, but it was certainly run by the prosecution without any regard whatsoever for the public purse.”

The case, which ended in two of the six defendants receiving prison sentences, also saw Liverpool firm Mark Jones receive £3.26m for its work, London practice NR Russell get £2.58m, and James Sturman QC of 2 Bedford Row pick up a fee of £465,000.

Harman pointed out in the letter that legal aid was paid for the case under the old ‘ex post facto’ scheme and that under new arrangements, where solicitors are paid at the beginning of the case as opposed to the end, the costs would be “considerably less”. However, Miller said that solicitors in the case would still have worked the same hours, just for less money.

The most expensive civil case, a failed multi-party action against Schering Healthcare, lasted 13 weeks at trial and saw law firm Houghton & Co receive £7,365,969 – plus £948,361 in disbursements – with Lord Brennan QC of Matrix Chambers getting a £250,000 fee.

Law Society president, Kevin Martin, said: “This snapshot of legal aid payments does not give the whole picture, but does highlight a serious problem. The increasing cost of a few very high cost cases – mostly criminal cases – has had the effect of depleting the budget available for civil legal aid to the point where millions of people have been left without a means to solve their problems.”

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Risk & Compliance Legal Aid Procedures Funding Professional negligence