The government should abandon its telephone helpline for civil legal advice, a justice campaign group has said, after the Ministry of Justice cancelled a procurement to provide education and discrimination services.
On Monday the ministry announced that it will not be awarding any civil legal advice contracts for education and discrimination services after 1 September through the current process after receiving 'insufficient compliant tenders'.
The ministry said it could not say why the tenders were non-compliant because the information is 'commercially sensitive'. But the department is 'putting plans in place' to ensure continued provision after 1 September, a spokesperson told the Gazette.
People can seek government-funded advice and assistance on discrimination and special educational needs only through the telephone service, which was introduced in 2013 under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act.
Government figures show that only one client received face-to-face education advice through the gateway in 2016/17. No clients received face-to-face discrimination advice in 2016/17.
In 2015, the House of Commons justice select committee concluded that 'failing to provide adequate public information' on the gateway 'is one of the primary reasons why the gateway is underused'.
The Law Society, in its report Access Denied? LASPO four years on, said it was concerned that the gateway had created a barrier for clients for whom telephone advice is appropriate, such as people with poor English language skills, or physical or mental health problems.
Public Law Project published a report in 2015 that showed that the number of special educational needs and discrimination matters through the service was significantly lower than in figures provided in Legal Services Commission tenders for gateway services. Referral rates for face-to-face advice were also substantially lower than that previously estimated by the LAA.
PLP said this week: 'The LAA says that there were not enough bidders. In all the circumstances, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is little interest in delivery of such a contract. We would suggest it is time for the Ministry of Justice to recognise that the "gateway" and associated services do not deliver access to justice or value for money.
'Our strongly held view is that the MoJ should abandon the [gateway] for these areas of law. In any event, the lord chancellor now needs to make clear how he proposes to secure that legal aid is made available in discrimination and education cases, in accordance with his statutory duty.'