Criminal defence firms that have secured new legal aid contracts will be invited to help the Legal Aid Agency resist challenges from unsuccessful bidders, the Gazette has learned.
More than 100 firms are expected to challenge the government’s award of new contracts in a coordinated action.
Responding to letters before claim this week, the agency said: 'If you decide to issue proceedings, please note that we will consider applying for a group litigation order under Part 19 and Practice Direction 19B of the Civil Procedure Rules to manage these claims in a proportionate and cost-effective manner.
'We also will be inviting those firms who have been successful to be joined as parties should you issue proceedings.'
Jonathan Black (pictured), president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, described the move as an ‘unsurprising and classic attempt to divide and rule to ensure that they push through this appalling and dangerous scheme’.
The agency declined to comment on the letters to unsuccessful bidders, saying: 'We will robustly defend any legal action issues.'
The agency pushed back the date on which it plans to enter into new duty solicitor contracts. Firms were told, in response to letters before action, that the agency would not sign the legal aid contracts until 2 November.
However, Karen Todner, managing director at Kaim Todner Solicitors, told the Gazette that contracts in her procurement area will not be issued until 5 November.
Todner, who is helping to organise challenges by dissenting firms, said firms were ‘taking advice’ on drafting a letter before claim ‘in respect of judicial review’.
Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said the CLSA was not seeking to take group action and ‘remains open to working with the lord chancellor to finding a viable alternative that would reduce the spiralling costs to the Ministry of Justice of trying to paper over the cracks of something doomed to fail from the outset’.