Challenges to the government’s tender process for criminal legal aid will come to court towards the middle of next year, direction hearings agreed today. The timetable thwarts the government’s intention to start new contracts on 1 April. 

The lord chancellor is fighting a two-pronged attack over the new legal aid contracts.

A judicial review, sought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance, will be heard in the divisional court by Lord Justice Laws and Sir Kenneth Parker.

More than 100 individual procurement law challenges, sought in accordance with part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules, will be heard in the Technology and Construction Court by Parker.

Legal aid work under the new contracts was supposed to begin on 11 January. As a result of the litigation, the Legal Aid Agency announced last month that it intends for service under the new contracts to begin on 1 April.

Current legal aid contracts would be extended until 31 March, with a ‘backstop’ date of 10 January 2017 for a ‘contingency extension in the unlikely event that a further extension beyond 31 March is required’, the agency said.

However, during a directions hearing in the Royal Courts of Justice today, it was agreed that the judicial review will commence on 7 April. It is expected to last seven days. A hearing for the part 7 claims will commence on 3 May and is expected to finish on 16 May.

A spokesperson for the Legal Aid Agency told the Gazette: 'We are defending the legal challenges to the procurement process and will consider the implications of the new timetable.'

All part 7 claimants will be listed as interested parties in the JR but will be immune from any costs orders if they do not participate in it.

Sir Kenneth Parker said the divisional court would be in a position ‘to indicate what its principal conclusions’ from the JR are likely to be prior to the part 7 trial.

Speaking after the hearing, Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association chair Zoe Gascoyne (pictured) told the Gazette: ‘If ever there was a circumstance that called for a suspension of the [second 8.75% fee cut imposed on 1 July], this is it. This is especially so when the MoJ itself acknowledges (by looking to prepare contingent duty rotas) that it is highly unlikely that any new contracting regime would be in place by April.’

Gascoyne said cuts were ‘predicated on market consolidation and it now appears that will not happen at all or it will not happen until after July 2016’.

The supplier base had been subjected to ‘continuing uncertainty’ over the last two years, Gascoyne said. ‘All firms, whether “successful” bidders, failed bidders or non-bidders, have no guarantee of a future. It is impossible for people trying to run a business and pay staff to do so in the current climate.’

The association has written to the Ministry of Justice urging the lord chancellor to suspend the second fee cut immediately.

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