Wednesday, 1 July 2009

LSC a bit more civil?

On 30 June 2009, the Legal Services Commission (LSC) announced its plans for civil law contracts. In contrast to criminal legal aid which is facing best value tendering (BVT) for police station and magistrates' court work, the plans for the next round of civil contracts due to start in April 2010 are less controversial. Crucial details though are missing from the consultation paper (Civil bid rounds for 2010 contracts: A consultation response) making the announcement and some firms and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations are still likely to lose out. Also, the threat of BVT for civil work still looms.

Civil bid rounds for 2010 contracts deals with the vexed question of providing services in all five areas of social welfare law. In a welcome move the LSC has backed off from insisting that it contracts only with single legal entities, but will allow solicitors and NFP agencies to form consortia with linked contracts to bid for work. Stand-alone contracts in housing will not be allowed and this will hit some specialist firms and NFPs. They can link, though, with another organisation undertaking welfare benefits and debt work. Housing firms also have the option of providing family work as well so that they can contract with the LSC.

The LSC is splitting the country into 134 procurement areas which will be designated as 'A' and 'B' areas. LAG understands that 'A' areas will tend to be relatively well-served, urban areas in which the LSC will expect contracting organisations to have integrated services. In a move that will cause problems for some firms, those undertaking family work in 'A' areas will have to provide both public law children and other family law services to qualify for a contract.

The LSC was also vague on how it would select between organisations if there were too many bids for a bundle of matter starts. Organisations’ financial status and capacity to undertake the work if they are granted the case starts seem certain to figure. Vacant case-worker posts at the time of bidding are likely to be frowned upon. Fuller details of the selection criteria will be given in September when the details of the bids are published.

Another unresolved issue is whether or not the LSC will seek to pilot BVT for civil work in the near future. It has left itself the option of announcing two or three pilot areas this September. Suppliers in these areas would only get a short-term contract prior to the process of allocating legal help work being open to BVT. The LSC seems cool on piloting civil BVT - perhaps it has too much on its plate with criminal BVT? LAG believes that the decision to go ahead or not rests ultimately with the government.

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