Stobart to bid for new legal aid contracts

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Stobart Group is likely to bid for a contract if the government goes ahead with plans for price-competitive tendering for criminal legal aid, the business confirmed today.

Trevor Howarth, group legal director for Stobart Barristers, said the fixed-fee service had been created with changes to criminal defence services in mind.

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Howarth, whose firm says it has around 1,000 barristers, juniors and QCs on its panel, told today’s Modern Law conference that existing legal aid firms were ‘wounded animals waiting to die’. He confirmed to the Gazette his firm is geared up to bid for a regional contract if the government goes ahead with the change.

‘It’s right to say our business model was developed with this in mind,’ he said. ‘Without knowing the government’s full proposals, it’s fair to say we’re in line with their thinking.’

Howarth, a former practice manager at criminal firm Freeman & Co, claimed the current model is ‘unsustainable’. He added that those protesting against government reforms were unlikely to change future proposals.

‘There are so many practices doing identical work on certain rates. You cannot run a practice like that. You’ll see a number of proposed mergers, which is not going to improve those firms with a legacy of debt.

‘If you’re contracting on a case-by-case basis you’re contracting for that case. People would contract us for a specific piece of work and we can do that because we have none of the overheads or debts that other firms have.’

Howarth also indicated the organisation would be keen to recruit solicitor-advocates as well as barristers if tendering comes into force.

Under its proposals, the Ministry of Justice will run tenders in 42 national areas and firms will submit bids based on volumes of work for three-year contracts, though their length may be extended by a further two years. The number of providers will be reduced from 1,600 to around 400.

Providers could be individual organisations, such as partnerships or legal disciplinary practices, as well as joint ventures or alternative business structures.

Applicants will be able to offer services in more than one procurement area and those that are successful will be awarded an equal share of work in the procurement area.

The government consultation ends on 4 June.

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