The Ministry of Justice’s ‘goodwill gesture’ to criminal legal aid firms that successfully bid for duty solicitor work has led to calls from new entrants to the market for a level playing field.
Last month justice secretary Michael Gove (pictured) announced he would not introduce a two-tier contracting regime that would have cut the number of criminal defence firms by two-thirds.
Following the announcement, furious firms, including Kent-based Gurney Harden Solicitors, said they were considering whether to seek compensation from the ministry after spending thousands of pounds preparing for the new duty contracts.
However, the Legal Aid Agency has now written to those that successfully bid for new duty contracts to inform them that they are eligible to join additional duty solicitor schemes from 1 April in areas where they have opened an office and hired extra staff.
A spokesperson for the ministry told the Gazette: ‘As a gesture of goodwill, the LAA has decided that the small number of organisations who opened new offices and recruited new staff, at their own risk, in preparation for dual contracting, should be able to take on legal aid work in those areas.’
Gurney Harden director Andrew Gurney said the firm was able to obtain the concession only after it instructed London firm Bindmans, which made representations to the LAA on its behalf.
However, the latest development has led Walsh Solicitors, which was awarded a 2015 own-client contract, to send the agency a letter before action.
Following the decision to scrap the new 2015 duty and own-client contracts, Burnley firm Walsh was given a licence under the 2010 contract. But it was told it could only apply for a duty scheme based on its main office, and cannot register for duty slots in Blackpool and Cheshire, where it has additional offices.
The firm’s letter states: ‘Walsh Solicitors sees this refusal as anti-competitive and is thus illegal and/or in the alternative unreasonable.
‘Clearly Walsh Solicitors are not on a fair footing as we were unable to add additional offices. As Walsh Solicitors have a licence under the 2010 contract we were not given the opportunity to tender for additional offices.’