The Court of Appeal has this morning granted the Law Society and practitioner groups permission to appeal a High Court decision that dismissed challenges to the lord chancellor’s legal aid reforms.
A suspension on the tender process for 527 duty provider contracts - placed in December - remains. The appeal will be heard on 10 and 11 March.
Law Society president Andrew Caplen said: ‘Our appeal has been granted and our legal fight continues. We are still working to put an end to the process.’
Earlier this month the Society, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association lost their High Court challenge against Chris Grayling’s decision to press ahead with two-tier contracts for criminal legal aid. But Lord Justice Laws allowed the Society and practitioner groups to try to take their fight to the Court of Appeal.
Within minutes of the hearing this morning - which was scheduled for one-and-a-half hours - starting, Lord Justice Moore-Bick (pictured) said he was minded to grant permission for an appeal.
Martin Chamberlain QC, for the lord chancellor, asked for the tender process to resume. This request was dismissed by Moore-Bick LJ, who said it would lead to a lot of time and money being spent by solicitors working on their tenders. ‘What’s the problem for the lord chancellor leaving things stand for 10 days?’ Moore-Bick asked Chamberlain.
Moore-Bick LJ added: ‘At the end of the [appeal] hearing, it will be for the court to decide what further relief [should] be granted.’
Moore-Bick LJ said the master of the rolls, Lord Dyson, was ‘interested in this case’, and indicated that the appeal may be heard by him and two other lord justices.
The CLSA said it was ‘delighted’ with the Court of Appeal’s decision, describing the extension of the injunction as ‘icing on the cake’. Chairman Bill Waddington said: ‘Thank you to everyone who has supported the cause of access to justice. We are so pleased to have achieved this victory for you.’
The LCCSA said the extended suspension of the tender process was a ‘relief for everyone’. Jonathan Black, president, said: ‘We’re by no means out of the woods yet but things may be moving in the right direction.’
The Ministry of Justice said: ‘We intend to robustly defend the case in the Court of Appeal, as we did successfully with the initial application in the High Court.’
The Legal Aid Agency said it ‘intends to continue with the tender as soon as possible and will issue further guidance to potential bidders in due course’.
Publicly funded criminal legal aid work is currently carried out under contract with the Legal Aid Agency. Under the lord chancellor’s plans, there will be two types of contract – own-client work and duty provider work.
No limit has been set on the number of own-client work contracts, and some 1,808 such contracts were awarded in June 2014, which are due to begin from summer 2015.
Alongside the dual contract system, the lord chancellor introduced a 8.75% cut in legal aid fees on 20 March 2014. A further 8.75% cut is planned for July.