LAA loses legal aid contract challenge

LAA loses legal aid contract challenge

At a hearing in the High Court last week the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) decision not to allow a London firm, MK Law Solicitors, to join an additional duty solicitor scheme was quashed.

The case arose out of reforms sought to be brought into effect by the Lord Chancellor to the provision of criminal legal aid. A policy of two-tier contracting was proposed to be introduced whereby criminal legal aid solicitors would be able to provide services to their own clients under an “own client contract” and separately under a “duty contract.” Awarded by competition, the duty contracts gave firms of solicitors that were successful the right to be on the duty legal aid rota in 85 procurement areas around the country.

Duty contracts allowed a limited number of firms to represent new entrants to the criminal justice system. Some 1,600 firms secured own client contracts. The intention of duty contracts for duty provider work (DPW) was to offer some 527 DPW contracts with the objective of forcing consolidation in the criminal legal aid market. It was hoped that if fewer larger firms performed DPW that service could be provided at less cost to the LAA.

The process of introducing the new dual contracts scheme was controversial and the results of the tendering process were the subject of litigation. On 28 January 2016 the Lord Chancellor announced in a written statement to Parliament that the dual contracting model was not to be proceeded with. The LAA was to extend current contracts so as to ensure continuing service until replacement contracts came into force late in 2016.

MK Law Solicitors had won 10 duty provider contracts in London, including four in north London. After the new 2015 crime contracts were scrapped, MK Law Solicitors sought to join additional duty schemes in the London Borough of Hackney and surrounding areas until replacement contracts come into force.

The judgment, MK Law Solicitors v Lord Chancellor, states that admission to the additional duty scheme was contingent on successful firms meeting certain criteria set out by the agency. The claimant’s case was that it came within the criteria set out; it was successful in the duty provider contract, had opened an office in Hackney at 2 Underwood Row, and had employed supervisors and staff to deliver criminal legal aid at its Hackney office.

The LAA said the firm was not eligible to be included in any additional duty scheme because the firm’s north London office had been operational since 2012 but this was contested. Ruling that the agency erred in its application of the criteria, Mrs Justice Patterson DBE said it was ‘clear from the evidence’ that the north London office was set up to be able to provide advice to clients if required. There was no contractual requirement that an office had to be manned and open for walk-in trade.

Patterson accepted the firm’s submission that to impose such a requirement was both irrational and a breach of contract as it had no ability to deliver criminal legal aid services from Hackney until the new contract had commenced. The firm invested further time and money to establish a fully functioning office in anticipation of the original duty contract start date. The office became fully operational in December 2015.

Patterson’s conclusion was that the evidence was sufficient to lead to a quashing order of the decision of the LAA regarding MK Law Solicitors. The full text of the judgement is at :

http://www.bailii.org/ew/cases/EWHC/Admin/2016/1194.html

This post was written by:

- who has written 462 posts on Upper Case – The Anya Legal Journal.

Mike Gribbin is a retired Civil Servant with wide experience, including the drafting and implementation of Parliamentary legislation and regulations. He is the editor of “Criminal Offences Handbook”, a uniquely comprehensive guide to more than one thousand ways to fall foul of UK criminal law. He is Editor of the Upper Case Legal Journal and has been writing blog posts for the past eight years.

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