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Redundancy fears as family legal aid firms fail to secure contracts

17 August 2010

Fears of widespread redundancies in the family legal aid sector are mounting as a new survey tallies the access to justice traumas caused by budget cuts.

Forty per cent of firms failed to secure a family legal aid contract in the recent bid round, according to the survey conducted by the family lawyers’ association Resolution, and 15 per cent were partially successful.

“These firms have told us that redundancies of up to 542 are expected – and these figures are likely to rise as we hear from other firms who have been affected,” said Resolution’s chair David Allison.

The number of firms offering publicly funded family work has dropped from 4,500 in 2000 to 1,300 in 2010 and could fall again as the Legal Services Commission implements a policy of allocating contracts to fewer but larger providers and shunning law firms in favour of alternative organisations.

Allison also said there had been consolidations in the market, with mergers, acquisitions and lawyers moving firms, but that it remained to be seen whether the market could fully adjust quickly enough.

Lawyers were particularly concerned over the provision of emergency assistance, such as in cases of domestic violence or in specialist fields such as forced marriages.

One respondent pointed out that some of the bidders that failed to secure a contract were the preferred choice for the local police independent domestic violence advocates.

Another commented on the emerging legal aid deserts. “Cornwall has been decimated in terms of providers – there are now only five providers covering 11 offices across the county. Of those 11 offices, six belong to a single firm. Conflicts are going to be a massive issue,” he said.

Care proceedings were of particular concern, he continued, “where you invariably have up to five parties requiring separate representation”. The lack of local providers in one area means that some of clients could be represented by the one local firm with a legal aid contract and that the others would have no choice but to travel to a different town more than 30 miles away.

The Resolution survey was sent out to all Resolution legal aid members, representing 1,355 firms. Of those, 597 responded, with 561 saying they had bid for a contract.

According to the survey, 882 bids were made, only 239 of which were wholly successful, 83 partially successful, and 232 wholly unsuccessful.

Asked whether they would appeal, 256 firms said they would.

On the basis of the survey Resolution has calculated that the new round would lead to successful bidders recruiting for 108 posts, while the 315 firms that were wholly or partially unsuccessful would altogether make 542 redundancies.

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