The Law Society is taking the Legal Services Commission to court seeking a declaration that the family tender process and outcome are ‘unlawful’, and asking for a suspension of the new contracts.
Chancery Lane has today formally commenced judicial review proceedings of the LSC’s recent tender exercise, which resulted in a 46% cut in the number of firms able to provide family work, from 2,400 to 1,300.
Law Society president Linda Lee told the Gazette: ‘If they [the court] make that declaration, we want the court to adjourn the matter to give the Law Society and LSC time to work together to find a remedy.’
She said the Law Society will ask the court to suspend the introduction of the new contracts for between three and six months, and allow the current contracts to continue, to give time for a solution to be found.
The Law Society claims the way the LSC applied its criteria relating to caseworkers’ panel membership was ‘unreasonable and unfair’, because the procurement timetable did not give enough time for caseworkers to become accredited to the relevant panels.
The Society claims the LSC breached its equality duty and failed to conduct a lawful impact assessment. Chancery Lane also asserts that the impact assessment carried out was ‘seriously flawed’, in that it was carried out on the assumption that there would be little disruption to the supplier base, and failed to assess the particular impact on women of a drastically reduced number of providers.
The Law Society also asserts that the LSC failed to comply with its statutory duty to secure access to justice.
Lee said the ‘sudden and severe’ reduction in the number of family firms would have grave implications for some of the most vulnerable in society, disrupting the representation of tens of thousands of people and causing others to travel long distances to find a lawyer.
She said disruption to services had already started, with many law firms beginning to close and skilled and experienced staff leaving the sector.
‘The LSC has lost control of the process, and this is the latest and perhaps most alarming of the commission’s apparently haphazard attempts to reshape legal aid,’ said Lee.
She added: ‘We are extremely disappointed that the LSC refuses to acknowledge the detrimental effect that this will have on families, especially when the commission itself had not anticipated that the tender round would produce this result.’