Friday, 20 August 2010

Law Society takes action on family contracts

The Law Society has today (20 August) announced that it has commenced judicial review proceedings against the Legal Services Commission (LSC) over its handling of the tender process for the family law contracts.

Both practitioners and the LSC were surprised by the outcome of the tender process which was announced last mouth. 1,100 firms failed to secure new contracts, leaving only 1,300 to cover the country. In contrast, in the criminal law bid round involving a similar number of firms, all except a small minority were successful in their applications for contracts which commenced last month.

LAG understands that the Law Society has been under pressure from firms which successfully bid for contracts not to challenge the tender process, but Law Society president Linda Lee argues that it has a public duty to act as it fears 'access to justice is in peril' due to the reduction in the number of firms. Lee, who took up her post only last month, said: 'In some areas of the country, vulnerable clients will now be forced to travel long distances to find a solicitor and in some areas, there will be too few firms to represent clients, causing conflicts of interest where several parties to a dispute need and are entitled to independent representation.'

LAG believes that the Law Society is right to put access to justice for the public above the interests of the large number of its members who have gained from the tender process. The essential fact remains that an overnight reduction in the number of outlets providing family legal aid services risks members of the public not being able to find a lawyer when they need one. We are particularly concerned about the availability of legal aid in domestic violence and child protection cases.

However, it is only once the results of the appeals are known (lodged by many unsuccessful bidders) that the true pattern of provision will be revealed. LAG also suggests that firms which have overbid could negotiate reduced contracts with the LSC. This move would allow more firms back into the system. We would argue that a delay in the commencement of the contracts would give more time for all concerned to gain a better understanding of the availability of legal aid locally. We are suggesting that the government and the LSC need to agree with practitioners (both winners and losers in the contract process) on a three-month hiatus for this to happen.

Image: Legal Action Group