The announcement that criminal defence firms that have secured new legal aid contracts will ‘be invited’ to help the Legal Aid Agency resist challenges from unsuccessful bidders has provoked outrage across the profession.

Several firms are expected to challenge the government’s award of new contracts, which are due to commence on 11 January.

In letters seen by the Gazette, the Legal Aid Agency told firms giving notice of action: ‘If you decide to issue proceedings, please note that we will consider applying for a group litigation order under Part 19 and Practice Direction 19B of the Civil Procedure Rules to manage these claims in a proportionate and cost-effective manner.

‘We also will be inviting those firms who have been successful to be joined as parties should you issue proceedings.’

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers (pictured) said it was not members’ responsibility to defend the agency against claims that the tender process was seriously flawed.

‘Widespread litigation, coming on top of the delay in issuing results and entering into contracts, means that the LAA’s current timetable is unachievable,’ he said.

Law Society chief executive Catherine Dixon today wrote to LAA director general Matthew Coats, saying there was an ‘urgent’ need for the agency to make a public statement on how it intends to procure services in areas subject to a procurement challenge.

Ian Henery, managing director of West Midlands firm Ian Henery Solicitors, which was awarded a duty solicitor contract, described the LAA’s move as ‘blatant divide and rule tactics’.

In a draft email calling for future collective action between the 13 West Midlands duty solicitor contract holders, Henery said: ‘What would it say about the members of this firm – or our consortium – if we mocked those firms who were unsuccessful in their bids for a duty solicitor contract?’

A spokesperson for the agency said: ‘We will robustly defend any legal action issued.’