The Legal Aid Agency is considering tendering larger contracts for civil legal aid, the Gazette can reveal.
Speaking at the Law Centres Network Conference, Kerry Wood, head of central commissioning at the LAA, said larger providers offer ‘scale and flexibility’.
The government is thought to be concerned that too many organisations are dropping out of contracts to provide advice in matters that are still in scope.
But the idea received a hostile reception from law centres across the country, who suggested they would not be able to bid for larger contracts.
Wood said: ‘It would solve a problem in that we would not have people taking on contracts for small amounts of work and finding it’s not viable. With larger contracts you have a responsibility and you have to deliver this.’
Wood said the LAA currently issues 2,078 contracts for almost 80,000 matters, but the demand is met in just 48% of cases. For housing matters, current providers meet 66% of need.
Wood added there was no question of a lack of bidders, with the number of bids almost double the contracts on offer.
She suggested there was less risk associated with tendering large contracts, as a bigger provider was less likely to drop clients.
Wood also said the Law Centres Network would be well placed to put together a bid if larger contracts were on offer.
Several delegates spoke up to warn the LAA it would be a mistake to rely on larger providers and that law centres could be forced to close if it happened. One in particular warned large contractors would be less familiar with individual courts and judges and less likely to take on emergency cases for free.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said: ‘We would ask for some time and stability. You can’t talk about more change because we are only just getting on top of things.’