Solicitors struggled to meet the deadline for legal aid tender bids, with some firms working right down to the wire, the Gazette can reveal.
Firms had until midday last Tuesday to submit bids for 527 four-year duty provider contracts which will come into effect on 11 January 2016.
One major firm, believed to be in London, managed to submit only one of its multiple bids in time, the Gazette understands.
The Ministry of Justice has refused to say how many bids were received. A spokesperson said: ‘Standard practice is that we don’t disclose numbers.’
Middlesbrough consultancy JRS Consultants, which provided assistance to several firms with their tenders, helped one of its clients to submit an Established Business Financial Assessment form 45 minutes before the deadline.
Founder Simon Pottinger said the tender was ‘the most demanding and complex bid exercise we have been involved in’. Pottinger criticised the number of essay-style answers firms had to write.
He said: ‘[The tender process] is arguably a reasonable test of people’s essay-writing skills. But if I was in the criminal justice system for the first time and asking for a duty solicitor… I don’t want someone who is good at writing essays. I want someone who is good at the law.’
Two days before the deadline, solicitors were woken up to email alerts after the Legal Aid Agency sent 86 emails – one for every duty scheme – reminding them of the tender deadline.
A spokesperson for the Ministry of Justice said the emails were ‘automatically generated to remind providers that the deadline is approaching. Because the Legal Aid Agency is running multiple contract competitions (for each procurement area separately), providers will have received reminders for them all.’
Firms in Wales had less of an issue meeting the tender deadline – as many firms made the commercial decision not to bid.
Scott Bowen, Welsh representative on the Law Society’s access to justice committee, said many firms were already ‘struggling to make ends meet’ because of the geography they covered as well as dealing with fee cuts.
He said the South Wales procurement area, for instance, stretches from Swansea to Cardiff. The north-west stretches from Cheshire ‘right the way across to the islands off the north coast’.
Bowen predicted that many firms will ‘slowly wither and die’. He said: ‘It’s a frightening prospect for Wales. We are going to be left with lots of areas where there are no solicitors practising crime.’
- Nearly 4,000 criminal barristers have until 5pm on 19 May to say whether they are prepared to take direct action – no returns and days of action – if the new government proceeds with the duty provider scheme.