The government has admitted that a new contracting regime for criminal legal aid could be delayed further even if it successfully defends current challenges to its procurement process.

Legal Aid Agency chief executive Matthew Coats (pictured) was explaining the challenges to the tender process for 527 duty provider contracts in a letter to Nick Walker, clerk to the House of Commons justice select committee dated 14 January.

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 100 individual procurement law challenges will begin on 3 May and is expected to finish on 16 May.

Service under the new contracts was due to commence on 11 January, nearly three months after firms found out whether their bids had been successful. The start date was then postponed to 1 April, with a contingency for a further delay should it be needed.

The tender process was automatically suspended in 69 of the 85 procurement areas as a result of claims brought in accordance with part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules.

Coats says: ‘Whilst all the parties in the litigation agree the need for the claims to be determined expeditiously, the volume and nature of the claims make it difficult to say with any real certainty when the litigation may conclude.

‘The precise timetable for the individual claims has not yet been set out and, whatever the outcome of the litigation may be, there remains the prospect of appeals being brought, which would further extend any timetable that is set.’

Yesterday the justice secretary chose neither to rebut nor confirm speculation that he is on the brink of abandoning the new contracting regime.

Instead, Michael Gove told the House of Commons: ‘As far as criminal legal aid contracts go, it has been the case that we have had to reduce the spend on criminal legal aid in order to deal with the deficit that we inherited from the last government. But it is also the case that we maintain more generous legal aid in this country than any other comparable jurisdiction.’

Coats’ letter states that bidders were assessed against essential requirements, selection criteria, a financial assessment and award criteria. The vast majority of claims relate to the evaluation of responses to the award criteria, which is the last stage of the tender process.

Coats says there were 17 questions which required a narrative answer, which were then marked out of five. The questions related to, among other things, the management of the firms and how they would deliver services under the new contract.

The letter also states that 115 procurement law challenges were issued originally in relation to 69 procurement areas; 15 of those claims have since been withdrawn.

  • Business survival will be discussed at the Law Society’s legal aid conference this year. 'Legal Aid And Beyond: Practical Justice post-LASPO’ will take place at the Society’s headquarters in Chancery Lane, London, on 17 March. For more details see tinyurl.com/jer2ssv

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