LAG understands that the LSC has met with representatives from legal aid providers to discuss its interpretation of the High Court's decision on Friday. An important point yet to be clarified is whether the decision also means that contracts in social welfare law (SWL), also due to start on 14 October, should be delayed as well. The LSC had decided to run the SWL bid round with the family law one as it wanted better co-ordination of services at a local level. SWL, which consists of housing, benefits and debt work, fits well with the provision of family law services as clients often face a combination of these problems. Firms might be reluctant to go ahead with SWL contracts while there is still uncertainty over the family contracts.
It seems unlikely that the issue of SWL contracts and whether they should be delayed will be resolved before the hearing on 21 September. The Law Society appears to be taking the view that the High Court ordered a delay on all of the civil contracts including SWL, while LAG understands that the LSC believes the delay only applies to family contracts. Legal aid providers are therefore facing at least two weeks of uncertainty pending the judicial review hearing before this issue can be resolved.
At the hearing, the LSC will try to convince the judge that there is sufficient cover in each area of the country and that the bidding process was legal, but all options appear open to the court regarding its final decision, including declaring the process illegal. If this happens, the whole contract round for family law will have to be scrapped and a more open system adopted in which any firm that meets the quality threshold can undertake family law work. The middle way might be for the court to order a further delay while the appeals which many firms have lodged against decisions not to award contracts are decided. Things could look very different on the access to justice ground which the Law Society has raised in its judicial review application, if by early October a few hundred more firms have been awarded contracts on appeal.
Image: Legal Action Group