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Competitive tendering for housing duty contracts risks leaving clients without services

16 August 2017

The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) today published its revised timetable for firms wishing to tender for 2018 civil legal aid contracts, with the process commencing in mid-September. While the Law Society welcomed the fact that a degree of clarity has now been provided, a number of questions remain as to the detail of the process.

Current contracts due to expire on 31 March 2018 will be extended. However, exact dates have not been provided, and it remains unclear what the implications are for firms that have taken business decisions because they thought they would be able to obtain a contract from 1 April 2018.

Law Society vice president Christina Blacklaws commented: “The extension of the existing contracts makes sense as it would have been challenging to complete the tender process by the end of the year given the delay caused by the general election. However, those who were looking to expand their firms or set up new ones may be prejudiced by the delay because they were expecting to have a contract from April 2018. Therefore we urge the LAA to consider whether they can accommodate these firms during this interim period.”

While clarity on the tender process for civil legal aid contracts is helpful, the Law Society expressed deep concern about government plans to introduce price-competitive tendering for Housing Possession Court Duty Schemes.

Currently, duty scheme contracts are issued on the basis that there is one for each court, which means that there is a competitive element where more than one provider bids for a contract. But in a new move, the LAA has said this time the tender has to be price-competitive.

Christina Blacklaws said: "We see considerable problems in price-competitive tendering. 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.”

The government also announced it has decided to proceed with plans to consolidate the current number of court schemes.

Christina Blacklaws added: "Our members have expressed concern over the plan to consolidate duty schemes by offering single contracts for multiple courts. Members tell us that these plans will increase their costs and not deliver any financial benefits, especially in rural areas where the sustainability of the duty schemes is most problematic.”

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