Grayling faces new year test over legal aid
A challenge by practitioner groups to lord chancellor Chris Grayling's criminal legal aid reforms will be heard in the new year.
Judicial review hearings over the legal aid crime duty tender process have been set for 15 and 16 January after the London Criminal Courts Solicitors Association (LCCSA) and Criminal Law Solicitors Association (CLSA) lodged an application at the Royal Courts of Justice on Friday.
Their request for interim relief to suspend the tender process, however, was rejected. An oral application for interim relief was made this morning. A decision is expected to be made on Tuesday morning.
LCCSA president Jonathan Black said that without interim relief, 'despite the expedited hearing, by the time judgment is handed down, if favourable, many firms will have expended considerable amount of resources, which they can ill afford, preparing bids'.
He added that 'practices have cases to manage and clients to serve which they see far more of a priority than this futile bidding process'.
Solicitors roundly condemned the government's announcement on 27 November that it would press ahead with two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid and a second fee cut of 8.75% next summer.
The government's latest consultation on the plans was started days after the High Court ruled in September that the Ministry of Justice acted unlawfully when introducing the reforms, following a challenge supported by the Law Society.
The Society, which offered financial support to the LCCSA and CLSA to support their work on potential reviews, is also pursuing its own challenge to the tender process.
Andrew Caplen (pictured), president, said: 'In the interests of access to justice, the public and the legal profession, we have now taken steps to formally seek a judicial review of the legal aid crime duty tender process. In our opinion, the process creates a serious risk of market failure which could have major implications for society as well as the profession.
'Our claim supports many of the arguments put forward by the CLSA and LCCSA, and we hope to combine both claims into one hearing.
'We know that our members have concerns about their livelihoods, but also more widely about the impact the outcome of the process will have on access to justice for the most vulnerable in our society.'
The MoJ said it would 'robustly defend against' the challenge.
'We worked very closely with the Law Society as we drew up the tender proposal,' an MoJ spokesman said. 'They publicly acknowledged we listened closely to their views and made changes to our proposals as a result.
'Given their own council voted in favour of continued engagement with us, we are baffled as to how they are trying to challenge something they helped develop. This government has to make savings in everything it does to fill the financial hole it was left with.'
Meanwhile, the MoJ confirmed that answers to solicitors' questions on the tender process will be published today.
Solicitors were given from 27 November, when the tender opened, to 15 December to submit questions. Black said the deadline should have been extended to the new year as firms would be preparing their tender over Christmas and may have further queries.
The LCCSA and CLSA also urged practitioners to delay signing a three-month extension to their current crime contracts while the groups await 'further guidance on the consequences of not signing'.
Holders of the 2010 standard crime contract have until midday on 23 January to accept the Legal Aid Agency's offer to extend their contracts from 1 July to 30 September. The 2015 crime contracts are due to begin on 1 October.