The Law Society has won its High Court challenge to the Legal Services Commission’s family tender process.
Lord Justice Moses said the process was ‘irrational’.
He said it was ‘contrary to the LSC’s own ends’ not to have given firms the details of the selection criteria regarding caseworker panel membership in time for solicitors to achieve accreditation.
Moses said that, in failing to give selection details in time, the LSC had ‘arbitrarily and unfairly’ distinguished between providers, and deprived some of those most in need of the opportunity to obtain the services of well-qualified and experienced family lawyers.
The impact on contracts is not yet known, with the court still to provide a decision on relief.
Law Society president Linda Lee said the result was a victory for the thousands of families who would have been left without access to legal assistance when faced with State intervention in their family or the consequences of the breakdown of a relationship.
She said: ‘The failure of the LSC to anticipate, let alone manage, the outcome of the process was the latest and perhaps most alarming of the LSC’s apparently haphazard attempts to reshape legal aid.
‘We are extremely disappointed to have been left with no choice but to take legal action against the LSC, which refused to acknowledge the detrimental effect that this outcome would have on families.
‘The LSC’s actions would have seen the number of offices where the public could get subsidised help with family cases drastically cut from 2,400 to 1,300.
‘That would have translated into thousands of people facing grave difficulty in obtaining justice – ordinary people who are already facing extraordinary difficulties.’
She added: ‘Legal aid clients are some of the most vulnerable in society and access to legal representation where required is their only hope of achieving justice.
‘The Law Society has always maintained that this wholly unplanned major restructuring of the legal aid market would cause immense uncertainly and instability for many of the poorest and most vulnerable.
‘It is regrettable that the LSC didn’t stop to consider the consequences of its actions, before pushing ahead and cutting vital services that clients need and that a civilised society expects to be provided.
‘We hope that whatever steps the LSC now takes will see legal aid contracts properly distributed across England and Wales to ensure all families in need have access to justice.