Whistleblower claims legal aid contracting process flawed

Topics: Criminal justice,Legal aid and access to justice

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  • Freddie Hurlston

A former insider at the Legal Aid Agency has alleged that the contract procurement process due to conclude imminently has been botched.

Criminal defence firms are due to find out tomorrow if they have won one of a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour cover at police stations.

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But Freddie Hurlston (pictured), who worked as a bid assessor for the agency between July and September this year, has contacted the Gazette to make a number of incendiary claims about the staffing and assessment process.

So inadequate was the LAA’s handling of the exercise that the Cabinet Office eventually became involved, he alleges. 

‘It is generally accepted as best practice in public sector procurement that suitably qualified staff are used, that they are properly trained for the job and that a timetable is followed that allows due consideration of the bids,’ Hurlston told the Gazette.

‘None of these best practice objectives were met.’

The LAA denied the allegations, describing the assessment process as 'robust and fair'.

Hurlston, who was previously head of criminal justice system initiatives at the Legal Services Commission, said many of the staff assessing the bids were from Brook Street temporary staff agency on around £9.30 an hour and had no knowledge of legal aid or previous experience of public sector procurement.

He said the ‘very limited’ training did not cover specific issues for each question in the procurement exercise or what to look out for when awarding points.

The agency received around 1,000 bids. Hurlston said there were 17 questions in each bid and the questions were sub-divided into three or four parts leading to a total of around 50,000 answers to be assessed.  

‘It was clear after a few days of assessment that there were insufficient staff to assess all the questions with any quality,’ Hurlston said.

‘Brook Street staff were told, contrary to their hourly rate contracts, on 2 September that they would not be [fully] paid unless they assessed 35 questions a day.’

Hurlston said daily performance figures were posted on a board in the assessing room.

Members of the team who did not meet the daily target rate were sacked, ‘placing pressure on quantity rather than quality on the other members of the team to the detriment of the assessment process’.

Towards mid-September, 10 staff from a law firm were recruited to help assess the bids, Hurlston said.

Staff were also recruited from across the LAA to ‘assist with the increasingly frantic effort to assess the responses’ by the end of September, ‘leading to around 50 people working on assessing the bids, many of them with little or no training’.

Hurlston said the moderation process was ‘initially consistent’, with one person moderating all the bids in one procurement area.

‘However, once the LAA rather belatedly became aware that bidding firms had used some generic answers to answer questions when bidding across a number of procurement areas, the LAA used a “super moderator”… to write “generic responses to the generic answers".'

Hurlston said the LAA seemed to view generic responses negatively and these generic responses ‘tended to be scored lower than initial assessment and moderation. This was to the detriment of firms bidding in more than one area’.

Hurlston said one firm bidding across a number of procurement areas ‘was so disadvantaged that it went from being a top-scoring firm that would have got a contract to a low-scoring firm that would not have got a contract’.

Hurlston said an official from the Cabinet Office raised concerns about the validity of the assessment process at a meeting on 1 October.

Hurlston raised his concerns with LAA chief executive Matthew Coats on 6 October by email but has not received a response.

‘The LAA did not follow good practice when assessing the bids and, as a consequence, the results may be unfair to some firms,’ Hurlston said.

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘We can confirm that an individual has contacted the Law Society with concerns about the duty solicitor tender process and that we are taking these concerns seriously.

‘We have written to the Ministry of Justice requesting a full response supported by evidence which demonstrates that the evaluation of the tenders was conducted fairly and appropriately.’

A spokesperson for the agency said: 'The LAA strongly denies these allegations. We have followed a robust and fair process in assessing duty tender bids. We have taken additional time to notify bidders precisely to make sure these important decisions are right.

'Assessors received a comprehensive training package to ensure transparent, consistent and fair treatment of all applicant organisations. The assessment process has been subject to careful moderation and management at all stages.'

Readers' comments (26)

  • I cannot believe any suggestion that this has been anything other then a completely fair and proper exercise , no doubt the same rigourous checks were carried out when the MOj contracted with Saudi Arabia .

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  • Unqualified temps carrying out vitally important and complex work for near minimum wage?
    The adage 'practice what you preach' has perhaps been taken very literally here.

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  • Boooooooooom

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  • So could anyone explain to me why this is news to anyone? We have come to expect nothing less from the MOJ, it is like reporting that the sun comes up in the morning and the sun sets in the evening.

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  • Give that man a medal

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  • To anon at 05.30. The ineptitude of the MOJ may not come as a surprise but the comments of Mr Hurlston are of great interest and concern to the many readers whose livelihoods may be affected by this flawed process

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  • It would appear that the LAA could not organise a drinks party in a brewery. Why am I not surprised?

    The sad fact is that the quality of services for legally aided individuals & the just resolution of criminal cases may be jeopardised by this - to say nothing of the careers of hundreds of lawyers.

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  • Simon, you missed the point. Six months of ineptitude and incompetence by the MOJ and then a two week extension for "Quality Assurance".

    You can almost write Gove's speech starting with "we have the most expensive legal aid systems in the world..." and ending with "we recognise that there was the potential for some inconsistencies in the tender process but through our thorough quality assurance process carried out over the last two weeks these have all been ironed these out."

    Don't raise your hopes up as we are only talking about the jobs of Duty Solicitors and their ancilliary workers jobs here, not steelworkers from Redcar.

    Gove and the MOJ aren't interested in whether their tender process was flawed or not and / or any injustice that this may cause to anyone directly or indirectly.

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  • There has been a credible alternative proposed to this supported by the rep bodies for 2 years which keeps valuable experience of lawyers in the system and consolidation of the market naturally and not devastating it overnight. Is it arrogance or bonuses for senior staff that keeps this obvious car crash travelling to its natural conclusion.
    Multiple bids will have generic answers as they are the same Firm with the same management team etc.
    There is no such thing as a model answer as 1100 different organisations tendered who explained their proposed method of delivery.
    Mr Gove you are an intelligent man, you can stop this and save the profession who will help you support and enhance the Criminal Justice System.

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  • To anon at 6.42. I don't disagree with you. Far from it. I suppose this is the danger of lawyers posting their views. You ask "why this is news". The overarching failure of the MOJ and the undoubted spin that will follow is not news. What Mr Hurlston says is of considerable interest to many of us though and needed to be reported. It shows that this sorry shambles is set to run and run

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