The High Court has quashed the Legal Aid Agency’s decision not to allow a London firm to join an additional duty solicitor scheme following the government’s decision to abandon its controversial criminal legal aid reforms.
MK Law Solicitors won 10 contracts in London, including four in north London, in the government’s now-abandoned procurement process for 527 duty provider contracts.
After the new 2015 crime contracts were scrapped, MK Law Solicitors sought to join additional duty schemes in the London Borough of Hackney and surrounding areas until replacement contracts come into force.
The judgment, MK Law Solicitors v Lord Chancellor, states that admission to the additional duty scheme was contingent on successful firms meeting certain criteria set out by the agency.
MK Law claimed it met the criteria because it was successful in the duty provider contract, had opened an office in north London, and had employed supervisors and staff.
However, the agency said the firm was not eligible to be included in any additional duty scheme because the firm’s north London office had been operational since 2012.
The firm said its Hackney office - which would cover its four north London bids - was registered with the Solicitors Regulation Authority because the firm had a civil contract there and that the space was sublet to an accountancy firm until last year. After July 2015, the premises remained largely unused because the firm was awaiting the outcome of the procurement.
The judgment states that the firm invested further time and money to establish a fully functioning office in anticipation of the original duty contract start date. The office became fully operational in December 2015.
Ruling that the agency erred in its application of the criteria, Mrs Justice Patterson DBE (pictured) said it was ‘clear from the evidence’ that the north London office was set up to be able to provide advice to clients if required. There was no contractual requirement that an office had to be manned and open for walk-in trade.
Patterson accepted the firm’s submission that to impose such a requirement was both irrational and a breach of contract as it had no ability to deliver criminal legal aid services from Hackney until the new contract had commenced.
Patterson said the lord chancellor would need to remake his decision ‘in a way which is lawful’ in relation to the firm.
A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency said: 'With one exception, the judgment supports our approach to applications from providers to join additional duty schemes.
'We will now review our decision in relation to MK Law Solicitors in light of the judgment and the facts of this particular case.'