Moves to overhaul the legal-aid system have been delayed by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) in the face of more than 100 challenges from solicitors’ firms who claim the whole process is fundamentally flawed.
Solicitors in the vast majority of areas of England and Wales have begun court action against the Government over its proposals.
They are contesting the award of 527 contracts to provide legal-aid advice in police stations and magistrates courts on the grounds that competing bids for the work from solicitors were assessed by staff without specialist knowledge.
The Independent can reveal that one in five of the staff who scrutinised the tenders were hired from the Brook Street Agency, and it was not considered to be essential for them to have a legal background.
Critics claim that the changes, under which the number of contracts is being reduced from 1,600 and fees are being cut, will put local solicitors’ firms out of business as they cannot compete with larger companies. They also warn that the quality of advice to people under arrest will be undermined.
In the face of the revolt, the launch of the new system has been delayed from January to April by the Legal Aid Agency, which is part of the MoJ. It is even leaving open the option of a further delay to 2017 if the legal battle over the moves proves to be protracted.
At least 110 claims have been filed by companies in 69 of the 85 procurement areas. The agency has responded it will “robustly” contest the claims and has applied to fight the cases en masse.
A spokesman said: “Our first priority is to ensure criminal legal aid remains available to those who need it and we cannot risk gaps in provision due to ongoing litigation. We have therefore taken the difficult but necessary decision to delay the implementation of the new contract.”
It has emerged that 13 temps were recruited from Brook Street to help sift through the thousands of pages of contract bids from solicitors’ companies. In a written Commons answer, Shailesh Vara, the Justice Minister, said they comprised 19 per cent of the assessment team.
He said: “The key criteria for employment were analytical skills and the ability to conduct a qualitative assessment. A legal or procurement background was considered an advantage but not essential, given that they would be supervised by permanent staff from the Legal Aid Agency.”
Labour seized on the disclosure as fresh evidence that the Ministry presided over a “chaotic procurement process”.
Karl Turner, the shadow legal-aid minister, said: “Labour has warned repeatedly about the negative impact these ill-thought-through changes to duty-provider contracts will have on access to justice.
“The Government must now come clean about how these contracts were awarded. Solicitors’ firms up and down the country are rightfully angry over how their bids have been dealt with.”
The Law Society called for an independent review of how the contracts were awarded.
Jonathan Smithers, its president, said: “The cost of litigation to defend a process which is subject to such a significant number of legal challenges is a waste of public money, at a time when the Ministry of Justice, like all Government departments, is under serious financial pressure.”
He added that the society believed there was now a “serious risk of a knock-on effect on access to justice for clients” and that firms faced collapse.