Confusion over civil legal aid contracts
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Marc Bloomfield
Most civil legal aid contracts should have commenced at the beginning of the month (1 September 2018) but some firms are still waiting for confirmation from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) that they have been awarded them.
Prior to being awarded the new standard civil contracts, legal aid providers had to complete an online verification process. Once this was done, they had to ‘execute’ the contracts with the LAA online. Glitches in the process had led to around 350 providers not having contracts in place at the beginning of the month. The LAA extended the deadline to 7 September for firms to complete the process.
Legal Action spoke to firms that, because of delays in the verification process, had decided to put bids in the further civil bid round, which was announced in June 2018 (see July/August 2018 Legal Action 13), to cover their position. Firms and other providers also used the further bid round to apply for more or to reduce the number of contracts they were bidding for. It seems that some providers did not realise that bidding in the additional procurement round would invalidate their first-round bids for contracts due to commence on 1 September (contracts in the additional round are due to commence a month later, on 1 October).
According to the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG), which represents many civil legal aid providers, last Thursday (13 September) over 130 firms were still to pass through the verification process to qualify for contracts. Chris Minnoch, LAPG’s operations director, told Legal Action that ‘some firms misunderstood’ what was required of them from the LAA and that there were ‘lessons to be learnt from both sides’ over the timetables and information about the bid rounds. Minnoch believes the LAA should not be criticised for opening up the additional tender round, as it did not realise that the circumstances of many providers had changed in the nine-month gap between the rounds, leading to more bids than anticipated.
In recent days, the LAA has made a series of announcements on its website about the standard civil contracts. On 14 September, it said it had completed the upload of all of the contracts for civil legal aid providers that had completed the verification process by the 31 August deadline for the original contract round. LAPG, though, has taken up the cases of a few firms that believe they have passed the verification but have not received a contract. The LAA also announced on 17 September that it would complete the verification process for those providers that had applied in the additional bid round.

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