The Legal Aid Agency is conducting a snap consultation with representative bodies including the Law Society on new contracts for criminal legal aid, while seeking to extend current ‘contingency’ contracts to spring next year.
Following justice secretary Michael Gove’s (pictured) January decision to scrap a controversial ‘two-tier’ contracting regime, for which firms competed to secure one of 527 duty provider contracts, replacement contracts were expected to come into force later this year.
The agency is now offering to extend current contingency contracts, which were due to expire on 10 January 2017, to 31 March 2017. Providers have until 30 June to accept the offer.
The agency said the extension was needed ‘to allow the tender process and mobilisation period to be completed’ so that providers can prepare for a new crime contract, and to ‘ensure continuity of crime services from 11 January 2017 to the start date of the replacement crime contract’.
The agency has also entered into a three-week consultation with representative bodies on the content of the new contracts.
A spokesperson for the agency confirmed that the representative bodies are the Law Society, Bar Council, Legal Aid Practitioners Group and Advice Services Alliance.
A Law Society spokesperson said: ‘We are expecting the contract to be largely uncontroversial, mainly reflecting changes proposed in the draft 2015 contracts when the Legal Aid Agency drafted “own” and “duty” contracts for the two-tier arrangements.
‘The Society has been working with the practitioner groups and the LAA to try to find a mechanism to mitigate the problem of “ghost” duty solicitors by tightening up the rules to ensure that only those currently active in criminal law can act as duty solicitors.’
Zoe Gascoyne, chair of the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association, said the fact that the CLSA and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association were not statutory consultees ‘is a historical anomaly which should have been corrected’.
She added: ‘As representative bodies we feel strongly about the need for transparency. We understand concerns members will have in view of what has taken place over previous years.
‘The associations have worked hard to establish engagement which has been constructive and ongoing with the Ministry of Justice. Last week the lord chancellor wrote to both associations stating that he was “encouraged by the commitment [the associations have] shown to working with his officials to explore the best way forward for criminal legal aid”.’
LCCSA president Greg Foxsmith said the association has ‘made the case for duty solicitor slots to remain with individual solicitors, rather than firms’.
Voicing concern that the agency was not consulting with practitioner groups, Foxsmith said: 'With over 1,000 members in London desperate to know what the provisions of the proposed new contracts [are], it is bizarre that the LCCSA is not consulted but instead the Bar Council is invited to comment.’