As the deadline for tender bids looms, the Ministry of Justice has been warned that it could face a clutch of legal challenges to its criminal legal aid reforms.
Firms have until midday tomorrow to submit bids for 527 four-year duty provider contracts, which will come into effect on 11 January 2016.
The Legal Aid Agency admitted last month that it had corrected ‘minor’ errors in its procurement process and ‘Information for Applicants’ document, as well as ‘technical errors’ in its Established Business Financial Assessment Form. The Law Society said this reinforced its belief that the plans have not been properly worked through.
The Society’s head of legal aid Richard Miller said he had received questions from members about ambiguities in the document as the deadline approaches.
He said: ‘It is quite possible that these ambiguities will be relied upon by unsuccessful firms to bring legal challenges to any award of contracts, which will have significant adverse implications for the MoJ’s chances of successfully implementing these new contracts.’
The information document was published on 22 December. Last month, the LAA published amendment not ices on its website to correct information on procurement area rules and schemes regarding magistrates’ courts in London. It also published a new version of its Established Business Financial Assessment Form to correct a ‘small technical error’.
The MoJ said it would not speculate on ‘hypothetical future litigation’. A spokesperson said: ‘Providers were given the opportunity to ask questions about the tender and the FAQ document was subsequently published.’
The MoJ said the agency has a legal requirement to be even-handed during the tender process and was unable to respond to individual bidders.
Some of the main queries the Society has received include confusion about the rules applying to firms that have changed or wanted to change from partnership to limited liability status.
Miller said he had heard different interpretations of the rules which determine whether a firm has changed sufficiently to have to undergo an expansion capacity assessment, or whether they can continue to call themselves the same entity, thereby relying on the established business process and going through only a basic financial assessment.