The Legal Aid Agency has been criticised for a 'ridiculously low' £35 case fee to provide telephone immigration advice services as forthcoming research shows that the existing funding system has helped to create advice 'droughts'.

The agency is tendering for non-means tested telephone advice on immigration matters to anyone detained in police custody. Successful applicants will be required to deliver the service, which must be available every day, between 7am and midnight.

A 'frequently asked questions' document states that providers will be permitted to bid a maximum of £35 (excluding VAT) for a closed case. 'Tenders which include an ITA case fee in excess of this will be considered non-compliant and will be removed from the competition,' the document states.

Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, described the fee as 'ridiculously' low. She said: 'One has to ask how much time or effort the Ministry of Justice anticipates could therefore be spent on each call and therefore what is the intention of the service? It clearly reflects MoJ’s disregard for those who might wish to use the service.'

Jawaid Luqmani, a partner at north London firm Luqmani Thompson & Partners, which provides specialist immigration services, said: 'The fact that the Legal Aid Agency believes that it is possible to run a tender at this price reflects the fact that it is confident and probably justifiably confident that there will be some suppliers content to proceed on this basis. Will it mean more individuals potentially get some form of advice? Yes. Will it mean more people get effective access to real justice? Possibly not.'

The research indicating advice 'droughts' is by Dr Jo Wilding of the University of Brighton. Wilding told the Gazette that she had found a misunderstanding of demand and supply at policy level. She said: 'People talk about advice deserts, which are of course really important, but there are other areas where there appears to be a supply of advice but, in reality, clients have no access to advice in that area, because there is a capacity crisis.

'One of the main reasons for that is when providers still have unused matter starts in their contract, so the LAA assumes that reflects the low level of demand, where in fact the provider has limited their capacity, to avoid unsustainable financial losses, and is turning away potential clients because they have no more capacity.'

Such areas are classified as droughts because there is 'no meaningful access' to the available advice, Wilding said.