The government suffered a blow to its plans for new criminal legal aid contracts on Thursday night.

Karen Todner (pictured), managing director of Kaim Todner Solicitors, confirmed on Twitter that legal proceedings have been issued in 69 out of 85 procurement areas. 

The Legal Aid Agency said it was entering into contracts from 2 November. However, with claims issued before contracts have been signed, the agency is now believed to be subject to an automatic suspension under the Public Contracts Regulations 2006 in those 69 areas.

The LAA would be prevented from executing a contract unless it successfully applies to the court to have the suspension lifted.

The procurement areas where claims have not been issued are: Barnet, Cambridgeshire, Cumbria 1 and 2, Devon and Cornwall 1 and 2, Dyfed-Powys 1 and 2, Essex, Gloucestershire, Havering, Kingston, Lancashire, South Wales and Suffolk 2.

The agency had until midday today to respond to a letter before claim for judicial review from seven firms including Kaim Todner Solicitors, which is a key member of the Big Firms Group.

The LAA said it would apply to have any suspensions removed to enable it to enter into the new contracts.

An agency spokesperson told the Gazette this afternoon: 'We will strongly defend against any litigation and continue to work towards our publically stated timetable of commencing the new contracts from 11 January 2016.

‘We accept there is disappointment amongst unsuccessful firms, but it was always going to be the case there would be firms who did not win the contracts they applied for.’

A Law Society spokesperson said: 'The Law Society is gravely concerned about the timeline set by the Legal Aid Agency for the commencement of the contracts in light of the widespread litigation arising from the duty solicitor tender process. We have raised our concerns with the LAA and requested that they consider the feasibility of the timeline and ensure contingencies are in place in the event that the 11 January start date cannot be met.'

Meanwhile, justice minister Shailesh Vara said this morning that a legal or procurement background was considered an advantage, 'but not essential', for temporary staff employed to assess duty provider tender bids.

Last month a former bid assessor at the agency, Freddie Hurlston, claimed the contracting process had been flawed, which the agency denied. 

Responding to a written question on training from shadow solicitor general Karl Turner, justice minister Shailesh Vara said 13 temporary staff were employed through Brook Street Agency and a Crown Commercial Services Recruitment framework.

They were selected by the LAA and interviewed by permanent members of staff 'to ensure their suitability'.

Vara said the temporary staff made up 19% of the overal assessment team. Contracts were also entered into with law firms to provide additional resources.

'The key criteria for employment were analytical skills and the ability to conduct a qualitative assessment,' Vara said.

'A legal or procurement background was considered an advantage but not essential, given that they would be supervised by permanent staff from the [LAA].'