Around 100 firms intend to file claims this week against the government’s award of new legal aid contracts, it emerged today, in a coordinated action that could prevent the Legal Aid Agency from entering into contracts in all but a few procurement areas.
According to Karen Todner, who arranged a meeting of dissenting firms at the Law Society, firms in 75 of 85 procurement areas have said they plan to file a claim by Friday. This would automatically prevent the government from pushing ahead with the new contracts next Monday, lawyers said.
Criminal practitioners hope the move will force the LAA to reconsider its position and review the contracts. But if the government presses ahead, practitioners said they will consider seeking a judicial review of the procurement process.
Solicitors attending the meeting heard that they must submit claim forms by Friday to suspend the contract process and that injunctions will then apply depending on geographical area. Firms were urged to decide whether they wanted to challenge the contracts and send a letter before action by Wednesday to injunct the contract process for up to 21 days.
Todner, managing director at Kaim Todner Solicitors, reasserted her intention to challenge the LAA’s decisions. She told the meeting that after her firm had spent weeks preparing the bids, the marking was what ‘could only be described as [perverse]’.
She said that her contract bids had centred on extradition, but the person who did the marking did not know that extradition cases took place only at Westminster magistrates’ court.
‘It never occurred to me that months of hard work would be accessed by someone from Brook Street agency,’ she said.
Last week a former insider at the LAA, Freddie Hurlston, told the Gazette that many of the staff assessing the contract bids were from Brook Street temporary staff agency who had no knowledge of legal aid or any previous experience of public sector procurement.
The Law Society said it will consider how best it can help practitioners after claims have been submitted.
Richard Miller (pictured), head of legal aid at the Society, told the meeting: ‘What I’ve heard today suggests that there is great enthusiasm to bring challenges that would lead to contracts being suspended. The question then is how the ministry responds to that.’
Miller said once the Ministry of Justice decides whether to fight or reconsider its position, the Law Society can then consider next steps. But he stressed that the society is conflicted because some of its members had been successful with their bids.
’The Law Society is currently gathering information from members and assessing the situation on an hourly basis,’ he said. ‘This is a fluid situation so we don’t know what the position will be next week.’
Practitioners also heard that the Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) is considering whether to join in any legal action. But both the CLSA and London Criminal Courts Solicitors’ Association have said that they too are conflicted.