Ministry of Justice suspends legal aid cuts in the wake of legal action from solicitors’ firms

Due to legal action being brought by more than 100 solicitors’ firms, the Ministry of Justice has put the government’s plans to cut legal aid on hold, The Independent reports.

The government’s proposals to reform legal aid by slashing the number of solicitors providing services in criminal courts and police stations are in limbo after the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was forced to suspend a new system of awarding contracts due to an increase in litigation by law firms claiming the bidding process was fundamentally flawed.

The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) intended to introduce new “crime duty contracts” in January after the MoJ concluded a tendering and procurement process that reduced the number of legal aid contracts awarded to law firm from 1,600 to 527.

A reduction in legal aid work payments was an integral part of the reforms.

However, 110 claims from solicitors’ firms throughout England and Wales have been issued in court over the government’s plans.

The law firms are disputing the award of 527 contracts to provide legally-aided advice in police stations and magistrates’ courts on the basis that competing bids for the work from solicitors were assessed by ill-equipped staff.

According to The Independent, almost one in five of the staff who assessed the tenders were recruited from the Brook Street employment agency, which stipulated that it was not essential for candidates to possess a legal background or specialist knowledge of the procurement process.

Brook Street recruited 13 temps at an hourly rate of £9.30 to comb through thousands of pages of contract bids from solicitors’ firms. In a written House of Commons answer, the justice minister, Shailesh Vara, said this figure represents 19 per cent of the assessment team.

Due to the large-scale opposition to the proposed changes, the LAA has pushed back introduction of the new system from January to April 2016 and has left the option on the table of a further postponement to 2017 if the legal battle is drawn out.

Paul Staples, a veteran of public procurement exercises involving schools, the police and local government – often in senior management positions – said he received less than an hour’s training before starting to assess the duty solicitor bids.

This revelation was echoed by the former LAA senior manager, Freddie Hurlston, who was also a bid assessor.

He informed the Law Society that the tender process was “botched” and the LAA was “overwhelmed” by it. The Law Society, in turn, called for an independent review of how contracts are awarded.

The Criminal Law Solicitors’ Association (CLSA) expressed no surprise at the postponement of the new contracts, noting “serious flaws” in the system.

The LAA said it will “robustly” contest the claims and has made an application to fight the 100-plus cases en masse.