Legal aid contract challenges extend to next May

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice

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Challenges to the government’s tender process for criminal legal aid will come to court towards the middle of next year, direction hearings agreed today. The timetable thwarts the government’s intention to start new contracts on 1 April. 

The lord chancellor is fighting a two-pronged attack over the new legal aid contracts.

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A judicial review, sought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, will be heard in the divisional court by Lord Justice Laws and Sir Kenneth Parker.

More than 100 individual procurement law challenges, sought in accordance with part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules, will be heard in the Technology and Construction Court by Parker.

Legal aid work under the new contracts was supposed to begin on 11 January. As a result of the litigation, the Legal Aid Agency announced last month that it intends for service under the new contracts to begin on 1 April.

Current legal aid contracts would be extended until 31 March, with a ‘backstop’ date of 10 January 2017 for a ‘contingency extension in the unlikely event that a further extension beyond 31 March is required’, the agency said.

However, during a directions hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice today, it was agreed that the judicial review will commence on 7 April. It is expected to last seven days. A hearing for the part 7 claims will commence on 3 May and is expected to finish on 16 May.

A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency told the Gazette: 'We are defending the legal challenges to the procurement process and will consider the implications of the new timetable.'

All part 7 claimants will be listed as interested parties in the JR but will be immune from any costs orders if they do not participate in it.

Sir Kenneth Parker said the divisional court would be in a position ‘to indicate what its principal conclusions’ from the JR are likely to be prior to the part 7 trial.

Speaking after the hearing, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association chair Zoe Gascoyne (pictured) told the Gazette: ‘If ever there was a circumstance that called for a suspension of the [second 8.75% fee cut imposed on 1 July], this is it. This is especially so when the MoJ itself acknowledges (by looking to prepare contingent duty rotas) that it is highly unlikely that any new contracting regime would be in place by April.’

Gascoyne said cuts were ‘predicated on market consolidation and it now appears that will not happen at all or it will not happen until after July 2016’.

The supplier base had been subjected to ‘continuing uncertainty’ over the last two years, Gascoyne said. ‘All firms, whether “successful” bidders, failed bidders or non-bidders, have no guarantee of a future. It is impossible for people trying to run a business and pay staff to do so in the current climate.’

The association has written to the Ministry of Justice urging the lord chancellor to suspend the second fee cut immediately.

Readers' comments (5)

  • GOVE.

    Pull the plug on this waste of money and take the budget route to consolidation:
    - limiting rota slots to local solicitors.
    - get rid of the ghost duty solicitors.
    - replace contracting with a licensed case management system

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  • "Gascoyne said cuts were ‘predicated on market consolidation and it now appears that will not happen at all or it will not happen until after July 2016’."

    But the argument about market consolidation was always a specious one. Two-tier doesn't consolidate the market, in fact quite the contrary. The Duty contracts are generally too small and spread over too wide an area for any economies of scale. Furthermore, allowing an army of own client contractors to ply their trade side by side will make life very difficult for the duty firms. The result will be a market that is both fragmented and lacking resilience.

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  • Which ever way it turns out for both economic reasons and your self respect any solicitor should use this time to find alternative employment.
    I suspect that most of us are counting down to retirement but if those remaining think they are inheriting anything worth having are sadly mistaken.

    I would urge anyone in this late lamented profession to leave before you get sucked down with the sinking ship.

    Sorry to be so pessimistic at this time of year but as a new year's resolution a new occupation where you are respected and have self respect is more important than this croc of over regulated*****

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  • Anon @10.52am has it dead on.
    Everything about the tender is dodgy. The enthusiasm of firms to bid for TT contracts showed a serious lack of business acumen. The whispering in the ear of MoJ civil servants by BFG before and during TT process whilst BFG controlled the opposition to TT was breath-taking.
    The inability of TLS to organise worthwhile opposition to TT (given they suggested it) was unremarkable.
    All in all a bloody awful year in which the profession showed itself as absorbed in fees as the Bar and, in truth, uncaring about the destruction of the justice systems and the denial of justice to hard-working, tax paying, striving people.
    In 2016 could we please get the conversation onto access to justice instead of fees. Please. And then we might just win.

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  • Arthur 1113 Its tempting to vote for society via access to justice, but a sinking lifeboat can't rescue anyone in a storm.

    Fees = profit. Profit is not a dirty word, its just capitalism, which makes the world go round. Profit = ability to reinvest, to hire staff, to live, to prosper.

    No fees, no profit, no client service in future.

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