Solicitors are threatening to issue judicial review proceedings against the Legal Aid Agency over an ‘embarrassment’ clause in the terms of its new criminal legal aid contracts.

Public Law Project has sent a pre-action protocol letter on behalf of its clients, the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association and Tuckers Solicitors, outlining ‘serious concerns’ about the clause.

As the Gazette reported in July, solicitors could be sanctioned for bringing the agency into disrepute under new terms for the contracts which come into force in April next year.

PLP says on its website that the clause may be incorporated into civil contracts. In its letter it has identified a range of scenarios caught by the clause.

Concerns about the controversial clause were raised at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) conference in Leeds yesterday.

Cris McCurley (pictured), a partner at Ben Hoare Bell in Newcastle, told the conference: ‘I’m really worried about the embarrassment clause. [If it] stands, anything we may do to challenge the LAA or Ministry of Justice could lose us our contracts. 

‘I would love it if all of us, if it does stand, if we all just got behind each other and we all agreed we would support each other if any of us were challenged or that any of us look like we’re going to lose our contract – we all stand up and say “this isn’t happening”.’

Questioning whether it is a standard clause in other government departments, LAPG director Carol Storer told the event it is ‘really important that we do not accept that this is a standard clause which government uses [which] is acceptable.

‘What legal aid lawyers do is more important than an average contract-and-supply services which are non-controversial. This is about challenging the state. Every criminal case is a challenge to the state, so we cannot accept that this clause is reasonable.’

Storer added that the Law Society sent ‘a brilliant response’ on this particular clause point ‘and still the contract came out with this included’.

A spokesperson for the LAA told the Gazette this morning: 'This contract will ensure that legal aid providers do not do anything that will damage the trust that the public places in legal aid.'