Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Very High Cost Cases u-turn

After a short consultation the Legal Services Commission (LSC) announced at the end of last month that the system for accrediting firms to undertake Very High Cost Criminal Cases (VHCCs) is to be abandoned.

VHCCs number only a few hundred each year. They usually concern complex fraud or other serious crimes such as terrorism-related offences in which the trial is scheduled to last 25-40 days or more. Two years ago the LSC established a panel system in which firms experienced in such cases had to apply to be included if they wanted to take on VHCCs. This was to ensure quality but the Law Society argued that the system led to the exclusion of many firms capable of working on VHCCs. The rumour is that some firms were not being honest about their breadth of experience in VHCCs at the expense of others who were.

Though it seems a combination of accepting the criticisms of the panel system and insufficient resources to run a new bidding process, the LSC has now decided to revert to individual contracting arrangements for VHCCs from 14 July. The Law Society has welcomed the move, but solicitors have rightly protested at the wasted time and money which both they and the LSC have lost in running the panel system. LAG has learnt that the LSC is secretly consulting with practitioners over revised arrangements for allocating VHCCs. The results of this consultation will be made public next month.

The total costs of the abandoned panel system could run into millions. Lawyers are annoyed at what they see as another unnecessary LSC initiative taken-up and then abandoned, but these are lucrative cases for them. With fees of up to £1000 a day, there will be plenty of firms keen to join the new system. Last year just under 400 VHCCs cost £125m, or 25 per cent of the entire budget for Crown and other higher court work. The remaining budget of £700m went on just under 125,000 cases. Much of the cost of VHCCs is caused by factors external to the legal aid system such as court delays,but with government budgets under such pressure and the fees paid to lawyers in VHCCs being disproportionately higher than the bulk of legal aid work, this is likely to come under scrutiny in the coming months.

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