The announcement of winners of new legal aid contracts - promised by the end of September - has been delayed to 15 October, the Ministry of Justice announced today.
A statement from the MoJ said: 'We regret that we will not be able to notify bidders this week about the outcome of the crime duty tender, as previously indicated. We understand the anxiety this could cause bidding organisations and are working hard to finalise the quality assurance required to make sure these important decisions are right.
‘We will now notify all bidders on Thursday 15 October.’
Firms were expecting to be told this week via the Legal Aid Agency’s Bravo e-tendering portal whether they have won one of a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour cover at police stations.
Despite the delay, the ministry said new duty and own-client contracts will still commence on 11 January next year.
Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘I have written to the lord chancellor today to express my grave and significant concerns about the impact of the continued delay of the announcement on duty contracts and the effect this will have on our members where livelihoods are at stake.
‘In addition, it is adding insult to injury to launch a consultation on criminal advocacy during this time of extreme uncertainty. We shall be responding to the consultation in the most robust terms.’
Bill Waddington, chairman of the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association, described the announcement as 'absolutely extraordinary'.
He said: 'We were told: Monday, then Tuesday, then Wednesday of this week. On Wednesday we were told "soon". On Thursday we were told "by the end of the week". Now we're told 15 October. I'm not exactly sure what quality issues they are sorting out, but perhaps they need to look closer to home.'
Jonathan Black, president of the London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association, said it welcomed the delay ‘as it is perhaps giving the MoJ a chance to pause and consider whether they really are doing the right thing with these proposals’.
‘Many firms, bidders and non-bidders alike, are feeling the stress of uncertainty as they wait to find out if they and their staff are condemned,’ Black said.
‘We would hope for more of an explanation given what is at stake so that the firms with so much riding on this have some certainty one way or another.
‘The only people with certainty are those who work in the [Public Defender Service] and those that they have recently been able to recruit ahead of the bidders currently in purgatory.’