Dozens of solicitors looking to get new civil legal aid contracts could take the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) to court if the current contracts are extended, Legal Voice has learned.
Current civil legal aid contracts for face to face and telephone advice end on 31 March 2018. The LAA announced in January that tenders for the new contracts would open in April 2017. It initially proposed a two-stage process split between April and the summer, but changed its mind and opted for a single-stage process, which delayed the start of the tender by month, to May.
The tender was further delayed due to the snap election and change of ministerial team. Practitioners expected it to begin in August, but there is currently no word from the LAA as to when it will. A spokeswoman told Legal Voice that there remains no firm date and that it will be announced ‘in due course’.
The delay is causing stress and uncertainty for practitioners, making it impossible for them to plan their businesses and forcing some to delay summer holidays.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said: ‘We have had phone calls from members who are very stressed about the delay and the inability to plan. There is already a great deal of pressure on firms and not-for-profits because colleagues are on holiday and people are covering work. Lawyers want to know when the tender will start and how long it will be open.’
For practitioners who may need to move premises, recruit or lay off staff and negotiate overdrafts, she said the ‘the lack of certainty is dreadful,’ and added that ‘stress levels are pretty high at the best of times’.
But those who are looking to start a new business and secure a contract for the first time are in a particularly uncertain position. ‘Many practitioners took the LAA at their word and have been getting ready for the tender by resigning from their current posts and identifying premises,’ said David Gilmore, director at legal consultancy DG Legal.
If the tender round is put off for any further lengthy period or the current contracts extended, he said some practitioners will consider taking judicial review proceedings of the LAA’s decision and the legality of its action, he said.
It is understood that dozens of practitioners are in this position. Legal Voice spoke to one, who wanted to remain anonymous and who has been planning to start their own firm, has resigned from their current job and identified suitable premises, but whose plans are having to be put on hold because of the delay.
They indicated that they, along with other prospective entrants to the market would consider clubbing together to fund a judicial review, if the LAA decided not to proceed with the tender. They said: ‘Denying someone like me the chance to come into the market is anti-competitive. The government is supposed to be encouraging enterprise and new businesses, but this goes entirely against that.’
Commenting on the situation and any prospective action, Vicky Ling, consultant at the Law Consultancy Network, said: ‘I have every sympathy with practitioners and know they are under terrible pressures, but I can see that the LAA can’t make any movement until they have ministerial sign-off,’ which she said may be slow to come given the new ministerial team and summer holidays.
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