Calls have escalated for the government to clarify its position on criminal legal aid contracting following speculation that the troubled tender process was to be abandoned.
Lord Falconer (pictured) has asked justice secretary Michael Gove to come before parliament ‘urgently’ to make a statement and clarify the government’s position.
The shadow justice secretary’s letter follows Law Society president Jonathan Smithers’ plea for clarity earlier this week.
A judicial review, sought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, is set to open on 7 April and is expected to last seven days. A hearing into more than 100 individual procurement law challenges will begin on 3 May and is expected to finish on 16 May.
The Gazette understands that the Legal Aid Agency has begun disclosing documents showing the marking by the assessors and moderators of all the claimant firms’ bids, which it has to do by the end of today.
Falconer says: ‘In the last few days, there has been speculation that the court action would cease this week and that the government would drop its plans.
‘I note that when asked by the Law Society, the Legal Aid Agency said that there had been no change of policy but that policy remains constantly under review by ministers.
‘You will appreciate that criminal legal aid practitioners are facing considerable uncertainty over the future of their firms and careers, as well as the possibility of significant costs in litigation. Many will understandably be angry at the way this has been handled and at your department’s failure to keep them - and the public - informed.
‘I would therefore ask that you urgently come before the house to make a statement and clarify the government’s position.’
When contacted by the Gazette this morning, the Ministry of Justice said its stance on criminal legal aid contracts has not changed.
A spokesperson said: ‘We are defending the legal challenges to the procurement process.’
Guidance issued by the ministry states that it would not be appropriate for the department to discuss cases subject to ongoing litigation in the courts.
It also states that the government's first priority is to make sure criminal legal aid remains available to those who need it. It has, therefore, taken the difficult but necessary decision to delay the start of the new contracts until 1 April.