The mood among criminal defence practitioners turned from anxiety to defiance today as unsuccessful bidders begin their fight against the government’s award of new legal aid contracts.
Hundreds of firms endured up to a 15-hour wait yesterday to find out, via the Legal Aid Agency’s eTendering portal, if their bids for a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour cover at police stations had been successful.
Kaim Todner Solicitors, a key member of the Big Firms Group, was not awarded all the contracts it bid for.
Managing director Karen Todner (pictured), confirmed to the Gazette that the firm would be challenging the LAA’s decisions.
Todner tweeted her contact details this morning for anyone who ‘wants to pool ideas or resources to challenge the contract bids’. She has so far received 30 responses from firms across the country, she said. The group will meet on Monday to discuss its next move.
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said he had been contacted by several ‘prominent’ firms who ‘are taking steps in commencing proceedings against the decision’.
Successful bidders have until 11.59pm on 20 October to confirm whether they intend to accept their contracts.
The LAA said it intends to enter into contracts in the week commencing 26 October.
It reminded unsuccessful bidders this morning that there was no right of appeal against its decisions.
However, it highlighted circumstances that could potentially lead to unsuccessful bidders receiving contracts. These involve contracts being declined by successful bidders.
The LAA said this afternoon that all applicant firms were notified of the outcome of the tender process by 10pm yesterday.
The wait caused distress for many solicitors, who were confused as to why the notification could not have been made more quickly.
One solicitor told the Gazette they found out at 9am today that their firm’s West Midlands bid had been successful. They said the notification message was sent to the wrong portal account at 7.40pm yesterday.
The solicitor said the firm was a lead partner in a consortium of three firms and it had a duty to keep the other two firms informed, so the solicitor logged into the Bravo system every 15 minutes until just after midnight. After midnight, they woke up at 1.30am, 3am and 6am to check again.
Paul Tubb, senior solicitor at QualitySolicitors Mander Cruickshank in Coalville, said 'a lot' of firms that bid for Leicestershire had been told the outcome of their applications and been open about it on social media – but by 4pm he had yet to receive any notification.
‘It’s absolutely upsetting and distressing,’ Tubb told the Gazette yesterday afternoon. ‘For your staff to find out their potential fate through other solicitors on social media – it’s appalling.’
A spokesperson for the MoJ said: ‘We had more than 1,000 notification letters to send out. That is why we were clear from the outset that the notification process would take the entire day.’
A firm was reportedly offered a Cheshire contract even though it bid for Cambridgeshire and Suffolk contracts.
The MoJ confirmed that a notification was posted to a Cheshire message board rather than a Cambridgeshire message board.
The spokesperson said: ‘This was immediately noticed and corrected by moving the message to the board for the correct procurement area.
‘The contract itself was for the correct area. No commercially sensitive information was sent to other firms as a result.’
Meanwhile, Alaric Walmsley, managing partner of Liverpool criminal defence practice Linskills Solicitors, told the Gazette he was glad his firm’s bid for a duty provider contract had been unsuccessful.
Walmsley said a bid was submitted as a compromise after one partner wanted to submit a bid but he did not. ‘With own-client contracts you can do other areas of work,’ Walmsley said. ‘With one of these [duty provider contracts] you’re tied to the MoJ for the next four years.
‘You lose a lot of autonomy by contracting with the MoJ in that particular way.’
President of the Law Society Jonathan Smithers said: 'It is completely unacceptable that LAA delays resulted in some firms hearing through social media that they would not be awarded duty solicitor contracts.
'We are still awaiting the LAA’s response to the concerns expressed about the tender process. We have invited feedback from our members about the outcome of the tender so that we can offer support and guidance.'