The government could have more criminal legal aid solicitors on its books after scrapping plans that would have forced market consolidation, it emerged this week.
Last month justice secretary Michael Gove announced he would not be introducing a new contracting regime that would have cut the number of criminal defence firms by two-thirds.
This week the Legal Aid Agency wrote to those who successfully bid for the new duty contracts to inform them that they are eligible to join additional duty solicitor schemes from 1 April in areas where they have opened an office and hired extra staff.
Firms must demonstrate that the new offices are operational and staffed as at 12 February, and that the office was a ‘component part’ of their successful tenders.
Firms can only join duty schemes where a specific office is eligible under the provisions of the 2010 Standard Crime Contract ‘and not any wider procurement area under the cancelled tender process’.
The letter states: ‘For the avoidance of doubt, this decision is an exercise of discretion under the terms of the 2010 Standard Crime Contract (as amended).
‘We remind organisations of the provisions of the 2015 crime contract procurement process, which confirms “The applicant organisation is solely responsible for the costs and expenses incurred in connection with the preparation and submission of a tender or associated with any cancellation, or suspension of this procurement process by the LAA. Under no circumstances will the LAA, or any of its employees, be liable for any costs”.’
A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said it was ‘nonsense to suggest market consolidation’ was going into reverse.
‘The legal professions themselves have told us on numerous occasions that the criminal legal aid market is already consolidating without government intervention and this is expected to continue,’ the spokesperson said.
‘As a gesture of goodwill, the LAA has decided that the small number of organisations who opened new offices and recruited staff, at their own risk, in preparation for dual contracting should be able to take on legal aid work in those areas.’
Firms wishing to join additional duty solicitor schemes from 1 April must confirm the address of each office and when it became operational.
Duty information forms and CRM12 forms for each office must be provided by 19 February.