Families with special educational needs may struggle to access state-funded specialist legal advice after the government cancelled a procurement to provide education and discrimination services through its telephone helpline.
The Legal Aid Agency has 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 agency says it will contact affected organisations 'to discuss next steps' but gave no further details.
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.
A report published by charity Public Law Project in 2015 shows 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.
Public law specialist Steve Broach, a barrister at Monckton Chambers in London, told the Gazette the gateway's introduction restricted the number of contract-holders that can offer specialist support. Broach suggests the agency should let organisations that provided face-to-face advice prior to the gateway have contracts. 'Reassure families they will be able to get help to go to the tribunal,' he added.
A spokesperson for the agency said: 'The LAA is cancelling the procurement process being run specifically for Civil Legal Advice education and discrimination services from 1 September, following receipt of insufficient compliant tenders. We have advised affected organisations of this decision.
'We are putting plans in place to ensure continued provision after 1 September, and will set our approach shortly.'