Solicitors could be sanctioned for bringing the Legal Aid Agency into disrepute under terms for the new criminal legal aid contracts published today.
The non-competitive tender process for 2017 crime contracts, which come into force on 1 April next year, opened this afternoon.
Among the documents published on the agency’s website was a 90-page ‘standard terms’ document.
One of the clauses states: ‘You shall ensure that neither you nor any affiliates embarrasses us or otherwise brings us into disrepute by engaging in any act or omission which is reasonably likely to diminish the trust that the public places in us, regardless of whether or not such act or omission is related to your obligations under this contract.
‘Any operation of this clause is subject to our obligation to act as a responsible public body and any sanction must be proportionate.’
The Law Society said the clause could cause legal problems.
Responding to the new contract, the Society said it was concerned that some of the representations it made during a snap consultation last month were not reflected in the terms.
Society president Robert Bourns (pictured) said: ‘Given the economic constraints within the legal aid system, and radical changes to the court system requiring solicitors to be increasingly mobile and flexible in delivering advice and representation to those in need, it is disappointing that a number of our representations are not reflected in the contract terms.’
Concerns include the agency insisting on the provision of advice from a fixed office that cannot be changed during the term of a contract.
The Society said a new clause requiring a solicitor to explain to the client the choice of a particular advocate for their case was ‘perfectly reasonable’. However, requiring that the process is repeated if a barrister pulls out the night before the hearing was ‘impractical and unnecessarily bureaucratic’.
The Society welcomed new clauses aimed at tackling the problem of ‘ghost’ solicitors on duty rotas.
There were also indications that the agency is willing to continue to engage on some issues, such as tackling the issue of ‘touting’, it added.
Bourns said: ‘We were pleased that the agency took note of some of our proposals on office requirements which we felt should be less onerous for satellite offices. But the truth is the current draft contract is greatly in need of improvement.’
The tender process, which is open to existing crime contract holders and new entrants, closes at midday on 15 September.
Questions on the agency’s ‘information for applicants’ document must be submitted through its eTendering system by 8 August.
Questions of wider interest answered in a ‘frequently asked questions’ document, which will be published on 22 August.
The Society will hold a criminal legal aid roadshow in Chancery Lane on Wednesday.