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Doubts over LSC's new civil contract timetable

19 January 2010

The Law Society has said it is "very doubtful" whether there is enough time for the new civil legal aid contracts to be introduced in October after the LSC announced that the tendering process for some contracts would not begin until early March.

Under the original timetable, published in December 2008, tendering was due to start in July last year. By the summer of 2009, the LSC had pushed the date for tendering back to February this year, with contracts starting in October 2010 (see, 31 July 2009).

The LSC has now announced that tendering for mental health services will begin on 8 February 2010. Tendering for family and social welfare law will start on 22 February and for “low volume” categories, such as medical negligence, education and public law in early March.

Richard Miller, legal aid manager at the Law Society, said firms would be particularly pushed where there were more bids from firms than matter starts and the LSC’s decision-making process took longer.

He said the tendering process would run into the Easter holidays, with the LSC making decisions in June and giving firms only three months to prepare for the start of the new contracts.

Miller said that the LSC’s decision to assess tenders for housing, social welfare and debt in each category separately, although combined contracts will be awarded, was particularly puzzling.

“A bidder that fails in any one category cannot be awarded a contract,” he said. “Bidders should be assessed jointly.”

He said a decision by the LSC to delay the start of contracts beyond October would cause problems, but there were “question marks over whether the LSC could do all it needed to” before then.

Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said she had advised members not to book their holidays until it was clearer what was happening. She said an immediate problem for firms wanting to know how many matter starts to bid for was that the LSC would not be publishing the final version of procurement plans until 25 January.

“The timetable is tight, but my guess is that the project team at the LSC can get it through,” she said.

“However, everything is so complex that there are many possible challenges to decisions. It is extraordinarily difficult to work out how decisions will be made.

“Successful firms may not be happy with the number of matter starts they have been awarded, while the unsuccessful may appeal.”

She added that the start of criminal legal aid tendering in March added a further layer of complexity.

A spokesman for the LSC said: “The Legal Services Commission is currently revising its provisional civil procurement plans to take account of the most up-to-date case data. Revisions will be published during the week of 25 January.”

He added: “We are currently considering how we may be able to simplify the tender process for all prospective bidders.”

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Legal Aid Education