The Legal Aid Agency has been accused of ‘incompetence of the very highest order’ over multiple changes to its latest tender for criminal legal aid contracts, which could lead to solicitors losing out on work for which they should have been eligible.
A month since a non-competitive tender process opened for crime contracts beginning in 2017, the agency has issued four amendments to its ‘duty information forms’ and ‘duty solicitor postcode tool’.
The agency’s latest amendment notice states that applicants wanting to join duty solicitor schemes in Birmingham and Cambridge must refer to the fifth version of the relevant duty information form (DIF) with their application response.
Duty information forms have also been amended multiple times for Brighton, Bristol, Liverpool, London, Nottingham and Wales.
The latest notice, which was published yesterday, states: ‘If an applicant submits earlier versions of the Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Liverpool, London, Nottingham and Wales DIFs, the consequence will be that the applicant may not be able to apply for schemes operating in the affected individual bid ITT [invitation to tender].’
Simon Pottinger, founder of Middlesbrough consultancy JRS Consultants, described the amendments as ‘incompetence of the very highest order’ in a scathing post on his website.
The post states that Pottinger ‘spoke to a client today who has been asked to do a “self-review” on a scale almost impossible to conceive, all because of a single mistake, which has previously never occurred throughout the entire history of contracting – that is, never before in 16 years.
‘These all form part of the LAA’s “zero tolerance” of human error, as ubiquitously displayed on audit. Contrast this to today’s most recent message from their central commissioning team – yes the ones who brought you the highly successful 2015 dual contracting.’
Pottinger told the Gazette that Newcastle was the only region for which the form has not been amended. Predicting further amendments to come, he said he is certain the DIF for Brighton is still incorrect.
His post concludes: ‘One might think that in such circumstances they would perhaps show some humility and display a greater understanding of “human error”, particularly when manifestly and repeatedly incapable of managing it within their own organisation.’
David Gilmore (pictured), director of consultancy DG Legal in Leicestershire, said he thought the latest tender would be relatively straightforward given that the process is non-competitive.
‘On this particular tender exercise, it appears that it wasn’t properly proofread or tested,’ he said.
‘I do sympathise with the commissioning team that any major procurement exercise is difficult, but there should be some sort of quality-control testing. Further, it appears unfair that whilst it is OK for the LAA to make several errors, if a solicitor makes one error it can be fatal.’
The Law Society said it raised a number of queries about the postcode tool with the agency. 'It is concerning that the tool was initially published with so many errors in it,' a spokesperson added. 'Several different versions of the LAA forms can't help but cause confusion.
'We're glad that the LAA is putting these problems right, but we would urge officials to be flexible in assessing any bids where firms have used a form the agency has subsequently changed.'
The tender process closes at midday on 15 September.
The LAA has been approached for comment.