The government spent more than £400,000 on an abortive attempt to impose new criminal legal aid reforms, the Gazette has learned.
In January, 14 months after the procurement process for 527 duty provider contracts began, justice secretary Michael Gove (pictured) announced that he had decided not to introduce the controversial new contracting regime.
Following a request made by the Gazette to the Ministry of Justice under the Freedom of Information Act, the Legal Aid Agency’s information governance team said the tender process was ‘one component’ of a ‘larger’ Legal Aid Transformation (LAT) programme, for which the agency has incurred a total of £5.5m in ‘one-off’ implementation costs on the 'entire' programme since its inception.
The programme, which has been running from 2013/14, covers initiatives such as reforms related to prison law, restrained assets, judicial review payments, civil fees, and crime fees and competition.
However, the £5.5m figure includes three 'cost categories’ which the agency said can be 'separately identified as directly related to the crime tender’.
Between 27 November 2014 and 28 January 2016, external legal fees associated with drafting the criminal legal aid contracts incurred a cost of £13,565.
Legal support on the procurement and assessment process, which the agency said was distinct from legal work on the contracts, incurred a cost of £125,933.
Agency staff incurred a cost of £271,574.
Prior to Gove’s announcement, the government was fighting a judicial review brought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance and around 100 claims issued by law firms in accordance with part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules.
When asked by the Gazette how much the Ministry of Justice had spent defending the challenges, the agency confirmed the department held information requested, ‘but in this case we will not be providing it to you as it is exempt from disclosure’ on the grounds that its release would prejudice either law enforcement or commercial interests.
'In this case, we believe that releasing the information would be likely to prejudice both the administration of justice as well as the department’s commercial interests’.
Listing ‘public interest considerations’ in favour of withholding the information, the agency said negotiations on the 'apportionment of costs' arising from the judicial review proceedings ‘are ongoing'.
'Disclosing this information during this process may adversely impact the fairness of these negotiations,' the agency said.
'Release of this information may place the department at a disadvantage in the negotiations, which in turn may result in an outcome which does not achieve the best value for the taxpayer.
'As costs have not been finalised, disclosure of interim figures may serve to mislead. Release of information could generate unhelpful debate, speculation and potentially undermine the administration of justice.'
When asked what the government intends to do with documents from the procurement process that showed the marking by the assessors and moderators of all the applicant firms’ bids, the agency said 'no specific arrangements' have been made.
Storage and disposal of documents ‘will be in line with the LAA’s corporate retention policies’.