The Ministry of Justice has met representatives from some of the larger criminal legal aid firms to discuss more ambitious plans for best value tendering (BVT), it has emerged.

The news has sparked fears among smaller firms that they could be cut out of the market.

The MoJ confirmed that meetings had taken place with the Law Society and a number of solicitors, and said further discussions will be held in the coming weeks to develop ‘proposals with a more ambitious scope’ to replace the original BVT scheme scrapped by the government last year. A spokeswoman said the current plans were aimed at reducing the overall costs for criminal legal aid and, by ‘increasing the opportunities for innovation and efficiency, enable suppliers to be profitable and sustainable’. Outline proposals will be published in March.

Law Society president Robert Heslett said: ‘We are in no doubt that, following the events in December, the Ministry of Justice is re-examining the provision of services.

‘The Law Society represents firms of all sizes and shall do so vigorously over the next few months when no doubt all interested parties will seek to ensure that there is a viable service for those who need it and that solicitors are central to its provision.’

He added that ‘no substantive discussions have taken place with the Ministry of Justice on new proposals for a revised competitive tendering scheme, nor has the Society been present at any meetings involving the Ministry and representatives of large firms.

‘The Society has been invited to attend a meeting to discuss the broad policy in relation to the design of a proposed new scheme, but at no date has been set for this meeting.

‘We would like to emphasise the fact that the Law Society represents all practitioners, and firms of all sizes.

‘We will not represent one type of firm at the expense of another, and will endeavour to take a policy line that represents the best interests of the profession as a whole, and that seeks to ensure that there is a viable service for those who need it, with solicitors at its heart.’

A partner at one small firm said: ‘There’s a danger that the big firms could sweep all before them and dominate legal aid, which would put an end to local services provided by small firms.’

One firm involved in the talks said the MoJ should be ‘commended¹ for speaking to firms that know the market.