Blaming the Legal Aid Agency for a contracts fiasco that left several firms not knowing whether they would be able to deliver face-to-face civil legal aid services is unfair, the agency's chief executive has said.
Shaun McNally told the Legal Aid Practitioners Group's annual conference on Friday that there were lessons to be learned about what went wrong in the procurement process for the 2018 civil contracts, which came into force last month.
McNally addressed the matter only after being criticised for failing to mention the procurement in his brief speech to the conference, in which he stressed the importance of 'working collaboratively' and insisting that 'if you choose a legal aid career you can be reassured we are an organisation that does care about relationships'.
An attendee, speaking from the floor, said: 'I'm surprised you did not mention the recent contract bid round. You're the chief executive and the buck should stop with you. It was atrociously run.'
McNally told the conference that there were lessons to be learned about what went wrong and right. However, after reviewing the complaints he received, he said 'there are issues where the LAA got it wrong and erred. There were issues where practitioners got it wrong and where they erred'.
The government made emergency arrangements less than two hours before the new contracts came into force last month after several anxious providers complained that they had not received the necessary paperwork. Those affected by the contract debacle included Brent Law Centre. Yasmin Aslam, director of Manchester firm AGI Criminal Solicitors, instructed her staff not to turn away vulnerable clients and be prepared to work cases pro bono.
McNally said: 'I wish [the procurement] had not been as painful as it was for some. But please bear with us. We're going to work together to understand what lessons can be taken as a consequence of this. I do not think it is fair to point blame on the LAA. There were a number of factors that contributed to the situation we found ourselves in at the end of August.'
Richard Miller, the Law Society's head of justice, told the conference that the Society will be meeting the agency this month 'to review what happened, what went wrong, why, what can be done in future to make sure it does not happen again' and report back 'in due course'.