For those amongst you who have followed the trials and tribulations of Criminal Practitioners over the last twelve months in relation to Two Tier Contracts it may come as no surprise to you all that the Government has now abandoned this particular aspect of the overhaul of the legal aid system.
Initially the Government proposed the removal of “own client choice” in conjunction with Dual contracts to provide representation. This proposal to remove the right of a client to ask for his own solicitor saw the Profession united and after very public protests this aspect was abandoned.
Then came the tender process by which firms applied for contracts to be permitted to provide advice and assistance to duty solicitor clients at the police station; this proposal was coupled with significant rate cuts which most believed made the system untenable. The effect of the introduction of such contracts would have reduced the supplier base by more than half.
These proposals unfortunately had the effect of creating some division within the profession. There were those who saw the prospect of a smaller pool of suppliers as a model by which their businesses could develop but this would be at a cost to other suppliers. All believed however that the rate cuts were untenable and that significant savings had already been made within the MOJ’s budget such that such deep cuts were no longer necessary.
Before the actual tender process got under way there was a legal challenge as to how the Government had come to reach the number of contracts it was proposing to award; this was successful in the sense that the Government reconsidered but the increase was negligible and in reality made little difference.
Then began the actual process of preparing and submitting an application for those who considered this to be the way forward. There were of course a number of firms who did not make applications and sadly made business decisions on the basis that they would face a reduction in their work load and as such staffing levels were reduced and in some instances firms made the decision not to provide publicly funded work. For those firms which did submit applications they took many hours to complete at significant costs to the business in terms of not just fee earner hours but many sought assistance from professional consultants experienced in public tender exercises.
Then came the long wait for a decision and the readers may recall the “rant” in the President’s Column in October following a conversation with Matthew Coates at the opening of the Legal Year in London – well his response of “a decision will be announced soon” was far from the truth and on more than one occasions practitioners were left waiting for a decision.
Even on the day of the announcement it was a shambles with firms waiting late into the day to be advised and firms being told they had been awarded contracts in areas where they had submitted no bids!
Inevitably there were those seen as winners and those as losers and as most had anticipated, further legal challenges were brought against the Government. This again put back the possible start dates for contracts and firms were once again in limbo. Some believe that faced with the prospect of huge legal costs in defending the action the Government abandoned the proposals and have since announced this together with a reversal in part of the cuts to rates.
Now further legal action is being contemplated by those firms who were successful in their bids but some may feel this is throwing more money after bad! But it would appear this is story which is not about to end just yet.
So where does this leave everyone; battle worn and weary! Once again it’s back to the drawing board to prepare a business plan. It seems to be that the powers that be, both in the Legal Aid Agency and the Government, will continue in their roles without consequence – we certainly are not seeing any resignations or re-shuffles. There are no winners or losers in all of this. For most practitioners we want to provide a quality service to some of the most vulnerable clients in society; for how much longer we will be able to achieve this is unclear.
Louise Straw, Managing Partner