Monday, 20 July 2009

Criminal BVT U-turn

In the face of overwhelming opposition from LAG and others, including practitioners, the government has announced today that it will not be going ahead with its plans to roll out criminal best value tendering (BVT). LAG believes it would have been a disaster if it had stuck to its original plan of introducing BVT for work in police stations and magistrates’ courts across the country by January 2011. Instead, it has decided to evaluate the two pilots in Greater Manchester and Avon & Somerset due to commence in July next year before making a final decision. At the earliest any roll out would begin in 2013.

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) has also decided that practitioners will be able to undertake own-client work outside the police station areas they are contracted for. A tolerance of ten per cent of their total work will be introduced to cover this. This represents an important concession as practitioners had argued that not to allow own-client work outside the police station areas they are contracted for would hit practices hard and lead to an inefficient service. The LSC has also announced its intention to be more flexible on the number of providers it will contract with in an area.

Apart from the two pilot areas of Greater Manchester and Avon & Somerset, practitioners will be asked to apply for new contracts in July next year. The LSC will be using an online system for providers to apply for the new contracts. Practitioners in the pilot areas will be asked to bid using an online bidding process. The fear is that practitioners will put in suicide bids to secure the work and this could lead to the collapse of some firms.

In LAG’s view, the government's mistake was in believing that BVT was a magic bullet that could be introduced relatively painlessly to cut costs. LAG believes that the government pushed hard for the quick introduction of BVT, but had to cave in when it realised that it could result in the meltdown of the supplier base. LAG recognises that there are few alternatives to controlling costs in legal aid work apart from price-setting through fixed and graduated fees or price competition. The government and LSC need to set fair, sustainable prices for legal aid work; the alternative of cutting back what legal aid will pay for is unacceptable as it chokes off access to justice for the public.

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