Civil legal aid experts are warning about an ‘unprecedented’ number of gaps opening up in the provision of civil legal aid across the country.
This Friday (13 April 2018), applications for the housing possession court duty scheme (HPCDS) for Cornwall close. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) was forced to reopen the tender process after it received ‘insufficient compliant tenders’ in the first round of bids. It also faces a judicial review of the HPCDS tender process from the Law Centres Network after changes to the scheme were widely condemned by the current providers
Cornwall is also one of 61 local authorities (39 procurement areas) in which the LAA has not received sufficient tenders to cover face-to-face advice for housing and debt cases. The gaps in provision were revealed in a document released on 28 March by the LAA
, which says it will be inviting tenders to cover the shortfall soon. The document also details the six immigration and asylum advice access points (covering 26 councils) in which there were insufficient bids and the seven procurement areas without enough family law bids. Vicky Ling, a consultant specialising in legal aid practice and co-author of the LAG Legal Aid Handbook
, told Legal Action
: ‘It is unprecedented for the LAA to be re-advertising such a large number of contracts so soon after the tender process has closed.’ She described the shortfall in housing tender bidders as ‘of particular concern’.
Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, told Legal Action that there is a ‘loss in the skills base of legal aid lawyers’ and a recruitment crisis going on as firms and other organisations are not able to recruit experienced lawyers and other caseworkers. She said housing lawyers are telling her that ‘in many areas of the country they cannot make legal aid work pay as the mix of work they can undertake has changed since the cuts to scope under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, but the fees have stayed the same’.
Head of the Law Society’s justice team, Richard Miller, believes ‘this is a “told you so” moment’ as the profession has kept ‘telling the LAA the civil legal aid contracts are not viable’. He also observed that while the LAA has offered 1,700 civil legal aid contracts, ‘it will be interesting to see how many providers take them up’, and even if they do ‘this does not necessarily mean they will use all the matter starts they are offered’.
Bids for the face-to-face civil legal aid contracts had to be submitted by providers on 10 November last year. The contracts are due to commence in September this year.