Government plans to introduce price competition for legal aid housing duty contracts could result in a ‘race to the bottom’, the Law Society has warned.

New civil legal aid contracts to provide specialist legal advice face-to-face and via the Civil Legal Advice telephone helpline are due to begin in April 2018. The procurement process will open in April this year.

However, the government has opened a consultation on whether to introduce price competition for awarding housing possession court duty schemes (HPCDS).

A ’headline intentions’ document published by the agency on Friday, setting out the agency’s approach for the new contracts, states that if price competition is introduced, contracts would be awarded based on both quality and price. The agency’s assessment process would include an assessment of financial capacity.

The Society said it has ‘considerable concerns’ about the proposal. President Robert Bourns (pictured) said the cheapest offering ’will not necessarily be the best. This could result in a race to the bottom which impact on professional standards’.

The agency needs to set out what steps it will take to mitigate such a risk, Bourns said.

’It should also keep in mind that cuts in payment only compound years of cuts for the solicitors that look after the interests of our most vulnerable citizens. It may mean that contracts which are already at best only marginally economically viable for firms become unsustainable,’ he added.

As part of the HPCDS proposals, providers would be required to deliver services across all courts in larger scheme areas. The rules for claiming for HPCDS work would be amended so that organisations can claim a HPCDS fee even where the case progresses to a full legal help matter.

On Friday the agency announced that it intends to keep services ‘broadly similar’ to how they are delivered under current contracts. It is not proposing significant amendments to specialist telephone advice contracts but intends to make a ’small number of changes’ to its approach to commissioning face-to-face services.

Greater flexibility will be introduced by allowing remote working arrangements within face-to-face contract where appropriate.

The number of London procurement areas in the family category will be cut to three to align with court estate changes introduced by HM Courts & Tribunals Service.

Organisations tendering to deliver housing and debt work will also be able to apply for a fixed allocation of welfare benefits matters.

The agency will commission immigration and asylum advice in the City of Kingston upon Hull procurement area. Specific services in this area have not been commissioned in the current contracts.

Work at immigration removal centres will no longer be procured separately. 

In the area of mental health, case requirements under the current mental health supervisor standard will change, with the number of tribunal cases to be evidenced rising from five to 10.

The agency wishes to use the Law Society’s specialist panel accreditation for mental capacity (welfare) cases - currently being developed - as a basis to restrict authorisation for Court of Protection work to offices with at least one accredited individual actively involved in delivering such work.