Housing duty tender plans condemned
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The government’s plans for the new housing possession court duty schemes (HPCDSs) have been widely condemned by the current providers. Simon Harris, chief executive of Citizens Advice Staffordshire North and Stoke-on-Trent, told Legal Action they ‘are disappointed that the Ministry of Justice [MoJ] has failed to take on board any of the points made in the consultation’. Like many practitioners Legal Action spoke to, he questioned the value of responding to the consultation as the government seemed to take the stance that ‘everyone disagrees with it but we’re going to go ahead and do it anyway’.1The consultation documents and government response are available here.
The government plans to reduce the number of contracts by increasing the number of courts the contract-holders will be expected to cover. Sue James (pictured), housing solicitor at Hammersmith and Fulham Law Centre, said that, despite the government’s claims, the tender plans will ‘not produce a more sustainable service’. She also believes that price competition will reduce the quality of the service and asked, as an experienced practitioner: ‘Why can’t my value be recognised? Why does the government always want to do things “on the cheap” where social welfare is concerned?’
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Most of the current providers argue that the new procurement areas are too large to be covered efficiently. Harris believes that his bureau could cover much of the proposed new area, but ‘a sizeable chunk of unproductive time to an adviser’s day’ will be devoted to travelling between courts and covering one court ‘potentially involves a five-hour round trip’. Like current contract-holders, he is also concerned that the low volume of cases in some courts will mean the service is not financially viable.
In the consultation paper on the schemes published in January, the government said it believed that the current system had become ‘unsustainable’ due to the number of schemes that had to be retendered. In its response to the consultation, published on 16 August, the government confirmed that it had not shifted its position on introducing price competition and the need for the schemes to serve larger areas due to the planned reductions in the number of courts.
Nimrod Ben-Cnaan, head of policy and profile at the Law Centres Network, told Legal Action that the government’s plans ‘risk destabilising an effective and cost-efficient intervention to reduce homelessness’. He believes that ‘people struggling to pay their rent will be forced to travel further away at greater expense to have their day in court’ and that price competition will make the schemes less financially viable for smaller firms and notfor-profit agencies like Law Centres.
The tender round for HPCDSs and other face-to-face civil legal aid contracts had been delayed due to the general election (the announcement had been due in April).2Further information on the tenders is available here. It is now expected to be launched in October and will be open for six weeks, closing in November. The other civil legal aid contract tenders will open this month for eight weeks.
Decisions on the civil tenders should be announced by the MoJ in March next year and the contracts will commence in September. The decisions on the HPCDSs will be made public in June 2018, with contracts commencing in October. The tender round for telephone advice contracts in family, housing and debt, discrimination and special educational needs has also been announced.
 
1     The consultation documents and government response are available here»
2     Further information on the tenders is available here»

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