Following widespread speculation that the two-tier criminal duty tender process will be abandoned by government, the Law Society called on the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to issue an urgent public statement to provide certainty for all involved in the contract procurement process.
The LAA yesterday advised the Law Society that there had been no change of policy. However, the LAA said that ministers review policy on a regular basis. We have therefore written to the minister, Shailesh Vara, today to ask for urgent clarification of plans for the future of the legal aid duty service, which offers advice to some of the most vulnerable clients.
The call for clarification comes two months after we urged the Justice Select Committee and the Public Accounts Committee to investigate the government's procurement process for the new criminal legal aid contracts. The Society has been calling for an independent review of the legal aid duty contract procurement process, following concerns that the evaluation process used by the LAA was flawed.
Criminal legal aid practitioners are facing costly litigation due to significant and widespread concerns that the process of evaluation of the duty solicitor tenders was flawed. This uncertainty will add to the problem.
In its last public statement, issued in November, the LAA announced that services under the new contracts would start on 1 April 2016. The Law Society has pointed out that this timetable is now clearly not achievable.
The delay will add further risk to the viability of the sector and the future of quality legal representation. Access to justice for the most vulnerable in society is being undermined as firms continue to operate at reduced rates, without the consolidation which the MoJ claimed, wrongly in our view, would make the cuts survivable.
Firms are facing profound uncertainty, whether they have been offered contracts or not. The delay is stopping them from making key business decisions and implementing plans. Those firms which were relying on the new contracts to cope with the fee reductions have been unable to proceed with consolidation and are unable to plan for their future.
In November 2015 the Law Society called on the MoJ to intervene and review the process as a matter of the utmost urgency.
Read our letters to the committees
Read our letter to Shailesh Vara MP