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Judicial reviews being prepared after civil legal aid contract "disaster"

2 August 2010

A number of leading civil legal aid firms have been discussing judicial review challenges with senior barristers after the LSC’s latest contract round ended in “disaster”.

In a result which left many solicitors shocked and angry, the number of family legal aid firms with contracts was slashed from 2,400 to 1,300 and those with social welfare contracts cut by 30 per cent.

Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said “some very good barristers” were being consulted by firms which had lost contracts.

“Firms are going to put in appeals, but are looking to line up judicial reviews if they are not successful,” she said.

“In social welfare and family at least, there will be some very strong challenges.”

Storer went on: “From the point of view of providers this is a disaster. What other word is there to describe this mess?”

She said that until the results became clear, the LSC had insisted it had no intention of getting rid of a large number of suppliers.

Storer said that the suggestion by the LSC that firms who lost contracts dabbled in family legal aid was “spin rather than substance”.

She added that the award of social welfare law contracts was based partly on the number of cases dealt with at the Upper Tribunal, producing the “most perverse” results.

“The more successful you are in the lower tribunals, the less likely you are to get a contract.”

Ros Dunning, senior partner of Dunning & Co in Camberwell, London, said her firm faced closure after securing 32 of the 33 points required to obtain a contract.

Dunning said the firm consisted of three partners, all of whom were members of the Law Society’s children’s panel, a newly-qualified solicitor, two trainees and three support staff.

“We do an awful lot of public law work, representing children and parents,” she said. “We cannot be classed as dabblers.”

Dunning said one of criteria that cost her firm points was failing to do enough private law ancillary relief work. She said this was because so few of her clients owned their own homes.

In a letter to another southeast London firm which specialises in child law and could lose its contract, Nicholas Crichton, district judge at the Inner London and City Family Proceedings Court, said: “It is my personal view that the Legal Services Commission does not properly understand the skill with which practitioners such as yourselves negotiate their clients’ cases through complex court proceedings, often saving considerable public expense.

“The determination to compress this work into large firms, where much of the work will be undertaken by less experienced paralegals and their like, will, ultimately, lead to a poorer service for families, and a lengthier, more expensive, process in the courts.”

The Law Society said it was urgently seeking legal advice on the award of family and social welfare contracts but even a “viable” legal challenge was unlikely to provide a rapid solution.

In a letter to legal aid minister Jonathan Djanogly, Linda Lee, the society’s new president, said: “The number of firms being shut out vastly exceeds anything we (and, we believe, the LSC) could have reasonably anticipated.

“It is likely to mean that tens of thousands of clients will find that their solicitor is no longer able to undertake legal aid work, and those clients may need to find another lawyer in the middle of their case.”

She said the results of the immigration and mental health tenders had also produced some “very worrying” results.

“In mental health, the number of bids far exceeded the number of matter starts available. This has resulted in many well-established and highly respected firms receiving far fewer matter starts than they have at present.”

Lee warned that this could lead to loss of legal aid provision completely from some areas.

“A similar situation has occurred to a lesser extent in immigration. In some areas, such as the Kent coast, the tender has failed as the LSC has been unable to let any immigration contracts at all as there have not been any bidders, even though client demand exists.”

A spokesman for the LSC said the tender process had achieved its aims of achieving a quality-assured provider base, while maintaining access to justice.

“The case volumes (new matter starts) made available through this tender exercise are broadly equivalent to those made available for a similar period in 2008/9,” he said. “Therefore we believe that client need in family and domestic abuse issues can continue to be met.”

The spokesman added that a minimum of five family providers had been awarded contracts in each procurement area.

“Those who are seeking a family legal aid provider after the new contracts come into force on 14 October should not have a problem sourcing help.”

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