Anxious solicitors waiting to bid for new civil legal aid contracts have finally been put of their misery after the government announced that the long-awaited procurement process will open next month.
An eight-week tender for 2018 civil contracts will open in mid-September, the Legal Aid Agency announced today. The procurement process was originally intended to begin in April.
Those bidding for face-to-face advice will learn if they have been successful in March next year. Successful bidders to provide advice through the Civil Legal Advice telephone helpline will be notified in May.
Solicitor Cris McCurley, a partner at north-east firm Ben Hoare Bell, told the Gazette last month that she and others had delayed taking annual leave over the summer so they could be available for the whole of the tender window.
McCurley said today: 'It is a relief that it has finally been announced and that we can now get on with it. I'll be on leave when it opens, but thankfully there is an eight-week window, so I will be able to crack on with it when I get back in late-September.'
But despite reporting overwhelming opposition, the agency 'remains convinced' that consolidating the number of housing possession court duty schemes into fewer larger contracts 'is the appropriate course of action'. Only seven out of 59 consultation respondents agreed to this particular proposal.
The Ministry of Justice said: 'Throughout the term of these contracts there has been a need to re-procure services to maintain sufficient provision across all courts.
'Available data, which will be shared with those wishing to bid as part of the tender process, indicates many of the schemes have only small volumes of work and are not commercially viable for providers. This is leading to a lack of sustainability of these services which has been evident in the ongoing incidence of providers pulling out of contracts.'
A six-week procurement process for HPCDS contracts will open in October. Bidders will be notified of the outcome in June.
The ministry believes large contracts will be 'more commercially attractive, will better accommodate further changes to the courts estate whilst making sure that universal coverage for those needing advice is maintained'.
The government is also 'not persuaded' to drop plans to include price competition in the HPCDS tender process despite 51 of 59 consultation respondents disagreeing with the proposal.
'The inclusion of price in the tender process introduces an objective element for the award of contracts as there is to be only one successful bidder per scheme. Price competition will also allow the market to set the rate according to the cost of delivering the service,' the ministry said.
Some current face-to-face and telephone contracts will be extended for five months, with new contracts beginning in September next year. New HPCDS contracts will begin the following month.
The Law Society welcomed the extension but urged the agency to consider whether it can accommodate firms, during the interim period, who were looking to expand, who may be prejudiced by the delay because they were expecting to have a contract in April.
Chancery Lane also predicts 'considerable problems' with price-competitive tendering for the HPCDS schemes. Christina Blacklaws, vice president of the Society, said: 'The cheapest offering will not necessarily be the best and it could result in a race to the bottom which may impact on professional standards.
'A number of providers have already pulled out of the existing contracts because they were not financially viable and this move to introduce price competition risks the same result, leaving clients without the services they need. A price war will not improve services and could negatively impact on clients.'