The government is facing a two-pronged attack over its new criminal legal aid contracts.
The Gazette understands that the Legal Aid Agency will face challenges from around 90 firms by the end of the week.
Last Friday it also received a letter before claim for judicial review from seven firms, including Kaim Todner Solicitors, a key member of the Big Firms Group.
The agency maintains that service under the new contracts will commence on 11 January as scheduled. A spokesperson for the agency said it was entering into contracts from 2 November.
However, around 40 unsuccessful bidders filed claims in the High Court last week. Another 50 are expected to file claims today and tomorrow.
If a claim is issued before a contract has been signed, the agency will be subject to an automatic suspension under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006. More than 70 of the 85 procurement areas could be affected, the Gazette understands.
The LAA will be prevented from executing a contract unless it successfully applies to the court to have the suspension lifted.
The agency has until midday on Friday to respond to the letter sent under the pre-action protocol for judicial review.
The letter states that the assessment of tender applications was ‘vitiated by serious structural flaws giving rise to an unacceptable risk of unlawful decision-making’.
Highlighting concerns over the moderation of bids, the letter states: ‘One firm in Hampshire was marked down on the ill-considered basis that a statement that the firm would pay “six solicitors £30,000 a year” would entail payment of only £5,000 per annum to an individual solicitor, rather than £30,000 per year to each of the six.
‘Such mistakes can only be the product of the extreme time pressure to which bid evaluators were subject.’
Highlighting an example of errors in marking, the letter states: ‘One firm in West Yorkshire was marked down for failing to provide detail on an approach to building an effective management team (for example regular meetings) even though the bid stated that the senior partner held regular meetings with the management team to a standard agenda which was set out.
‘The same firm was marked down for failing to provide information on how a member of the management team would be replaced, even though the bid detailed the systems for partners to shadow the partners and the contingency plan for replacing them if necessary.’
The letter states that ‘the only course realistically now open to the lord chancellor is for the tender as a whole to be set aside’.
Meanwhile, the agency is uploading own-client contracts to firms that successfully bid for duty contracts on the CWA (contracted work and administration) portal this week, the Gazette has learned.
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘The LAA provided tenderers for the duty solicitor contracts with a document entitled Information for Applicants (IFA). The IFA states that own-client and duty contracts will be signed at the same time.
‘If the LAA is planning to change this approach, because of the volume of litigation, or otherwise, we strongly recommend, in order to avoid further confusion, that any changes are clearly communicated to firms which have been offered duty contracts by way of a clear public statement.’