The Legal Aid Agency has made the right call in announcing a further civil legal aid bid round
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Marc Bloomfield
In a surprise announcement, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has reopened tenders for the main civil legal aid face-to-face contracts (Further process for procurement of civil legal aid services in England and Wales from 1 September 2018: face to face invitation to tender – information for applicants). This is the latest episode in what has been a rather drawn-out saga for the various civil tender bid rounds, with the Law Centres Network’s successful challenge to the housing possession court duty schemes (see page 4 of this issue) just the latest of several spanners in the works for the LAA.
Additional tender rounds were announced in March to plug gaps in services (see May 2018 Legal Action 4). These included retenders for face-to-face contracts in 39 procurement areas for housing and debt advice, six access points for immigration and asylum advice, and seven procurement areas for family work. Vicky Ling, a consultant specialising in legal aid practice and a co-editor of the LAG Legal Aid Handbook 2018/19, said at the time that the retender process was announced that it was ‘unprecedented for the LAA to be re-advertising such a large number of contracts so soon after the tender process has closed’. Richard Miller, head of the justice team at the Law Society, said it confirmed the profession’s view that ‘the civil legal aid contracts are not viable’.
It was clear that there were gaps in provision that had forced the LAA to re-advertise some tenders, but has the situation got so bad as to necessitate this further tender round just three months after the extra one was announced? Perhaps not.
David Gilmore of DG Legal, a firm of consultants that specialises in providing management advice to legal aid firms, says: ‘It would seem that some family law legal aid firms applied for public law contracts in error, believing they were applying for contracts to undertake public law family work.’ Ling believes some firms might have merged or changed their legal status after successful bids, which would invalidate their contracts. ‘Running the tender round again is perfectly sensible if two or three significant providers messed up their original tenders as this is not going to affect anyone adversely,’ she explains.
The LAA is inviting tenders in all areas of civil law: family (which includes private law family and public law child care); housing, debt and welfare benefits; immigration and asylum; mental health; community care; claims against public authorities (formerly known as ‘Actions against the police etc’); clinical negligence; public law (not to be confused with public law family!); and family mediation. The tender round closes at 5 pm on 10 August 2018.
According to the information for applicants document, the tenders will be ‘in addition to any awarded to bidders under the main procurement process and/or supplemental procurement process’. The LAA also says it will rely on clauses in the tender documentation ‘to prevent duplication across a previous bidder’s tender under the main procurement process and/or supplemental procurement process and tender under this further face to face procurement process’.
It seems that, in running the tenders again, the LAA has made the right call. Too often, Legal Action has had to highlight gaps in the provision of legal aid. Ensuring that providers who might have missed out on contracts due to errors can reapply is to be welcomed as this will ultimately benefit the public. The whole process of procurement for legal aid, though, does seem to have got rather Byzantine for all involved. At the risk of facing accusations of naivety, isn’t it about time policy-makers considered scrapping it and coming up with something simpler?

About the author(s)

Steve Hynes
Steve Hynes is director of LAG. He is a well-known commentator in the written and broadcast media on legal aid and access to justice issues.