Clarity over new rules for solicitors' firms wishing to tender for 2018 civil legal aid contracts were today welcomed by the Law Society of England and Wales.
However, the Society has considerable concerns about a proposal for price-competitive tendering for Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes, which will be consulted on until 17 March.
Duty scheme contracts are issued on the basis that there is only one for each court - the process therefore has to be competitive - but in a new departure, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has said this time it has to be price-competitive.
"We see considerable problems in price-competitive tendering - the cheapest offering will not necessarily be the best. This could result in a race to the bottom which may impact on professional standards," said president of the Law Society Robert Bourns.
"A price war will not improve services and could negatively impact on clients.
"The LAA needs to set out what steps it will take to mitigate this risk. It should also keep in mind that cuts in payment only compound years of cuts for the solicitors that look after the interests of our most vulnerable citizens. It may mean that contracts which are already at best only marginally economically viable for firms become unsustainable."
Though the Law Society has concerns about the price-competitive tendering element, there were elements to the proposals which it welcomed.
"In the bulk of cases, contracts will be awarded to those firms that match the LAA's stipulated standards and this is something we can welcome as it helps underpin quality."
The LAA published its headline intentions for the 2018 civil contracts on Friday - for most categories there is no significant change from the previous tender process or the contract terms.
Notes to editors
Under the new proposals there will be more flexibility in the manner of delivery for face-to-face contracts and some further flexibility in granting matter starts.
It will be a two-stage tender process, where interested firms will be required to submit a selection questionnaire in April. Those who qualify will then submit an invitation to tender in July. The new contracts will commence on 1 April 2018.
It is proposed that Housing Possession Court Duty Scheme contracts will be procured by way of a competitive tender which will include price. These proposals are subject to a Ministry of Justice consultation which is open until 17 March.
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