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04/01/2008

LSC throws rattle out of pram

Good heavens. In an announcement carefully made at 5 pm on 21 December 2007, the Legal Services Commission states that intends to terminate the unified contract. Yes, that civil legal aid unified contract that we mostly signed up to in March/April 2007 and that was to run the next few years.

Granted, the unilateral powers of amendment the LSC reserved to itself were found illegal by the Court of Appeal, but the LSC and Law Society were apparently in talks about revisions and the LSC seemed determined to steam ahead anyway.

In a remarkably bad tempered statement, the LSC blames the prospect of further legal action by the Law Society and, astonishingly, claims the need for certainty. Given the utter lack of consistency and stability that the LSC has provided, with changes from week to week, it is a surprise to know that the darlings are unsettled by uncertainty.

The LSC insist the fixed rates introduced under the Unified Contract will continue in the meantime. The Law Society suggests they fell with the amendment clause. This will rumble on.

The LSC aims to terminate the contract and re-tender, presumably for a new contract (although of course no-one, even the LSC, has any idea what this might look like).

Lest one mistake this for an outbreak of realism by the LSC, their letter claims

Given the applicability of the EU Procurement Regulations, confirmed by the courts in the recent litigation, the procurement process leading to the award of new contracts will be open to new providers and to existing contract holders and will include processes for bidding for the allocation of New Matter Starts which are already a feature of the controlled budget for Legal Help.

Given the levels of response in the recent Civil Bid Round, this is likely to lead to competition for contracts and work.

There are two ways of reading this. Hopeless optimisim, with a bit of threat rolled in, or a statement of intent that the next tender round WILL be competitive, because the LSC will restrict contract numbers to ensure it is. I tend to the latter view.

For the Law Society’s slightly gob-smacked response, see here, which also links to the Law Society/LSC correspondence on this issue.

So what is the time scale for terminating the contract, introducing a new contract with so far unknown terms, and re-tendering? Nobody knows, but presumably soon. So, plenty of time for a considered and revised approach then, and of course, in the hurry there is no room for un-thought-through and potentially catastrophic errors like, err, the Unified Contract.

Giles Peaker is a solicitor and partner in the Housing and Public Law team at Anthony Gold Solicitors in South London. You can find him on Linkedin and on Twitter. Known as NL round these parts.

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