Wednesday, 28 July 2010

'Carnage' as family solicitors lose legal aid contracts

LAG has just advised by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) that 1,300 out of 2,400 firms have been awarded contracts in family law. The new contracts are due to commence in October and firms were invited to tender for them by 21 April this year.

LAG has heard from areas in which the number of firms providing legal aid in family law from October will drop dramatically. For example, in Leeds, only ten firms will remain in the system, down from 35. In Stoke, six firms remain, with ten disappearing, leaving those six to cover a city with a population of just under a quarter of a million.

'From where I am sitting, it looks like carnage out there,' said Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. She is advising those firms which have not secured a contract to appeal against the decision. If many firms follow this advice, it could be some weeks before it is known which firms will be providing legal aid under the new contracts.

To select between firms, the LSC scored them against criteria such as quality of work and having a permanent office in the area in which they want to provide services. One of the key criteria was employing experienced staff to supervise and undertake the work. For example, points were awarded for having a member of staff accredited by the Law Society's Children's Panel. LAG understands that many firms have applied without having the necessary staff in place and are relying on recruiting them before the new contracts commence. This has led to accusations by some losers of underhand tactics by successful firms.

The Law Society believes that the level of refusals for family contracts is far higher than either the LSC or the Ministry of Justice envisaged and has today written to the legal aid minister, Jonathan Djanogly. It is asking him to consider whether the market can cope with 'this degree of restructuring' without compromising the availability of family legal aid services for members of the public.

Social welfare law
The LSC has advised LAG that it believes around 70 per cent of existing social welfare law providers will be allocated new matter starts (NMS). It is undertaking 'due diligence checks' in five areas and will confirm the numbers of providers which have been successful in obtaining NMS once these are complete. LAG has spoken to a number of providers, including Simon Harris, chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent Citizens Advice Bureau: 'The bureau was allocated virtually everything we asked for. Overall, we feel quite relieved.' The bureau has contracts in housing, welfare benefits, debt, immigration and employment.

Image: Legal Action Group


Salisbury Solicitor said...

The only problem with using carnage to describe the current cutbacks is that it doesn't really leave an appropriate word to describe the mega carnage that will inevitably result after the new coalition government slashes the public funding budget as indicated by Ken Clarke. Those cuts presume they will make the current problems pale into insignificance Do we have any hints yet as to where the axes will fall and how? How can solicitors plan if they have no idea whether there will be any market for their services next year?

claims whiplash said...

I dread to think what is going to happen with the budget being slashed now. It is very hard for solicitors to plan, there will be a huge influx of cases i'm sure.

Patrick Torsney [] said...

I'm with Salisbury Solicitor on the 'carnage' comment. I agree also that we have quite likely 'not seen anything yet'

It may even be that those firms and organisations that did manage to get a contract will find it somewhat of a poisoned chalice when the review pans out