Legal aid procurement shake-up on ice

24 December 2009

24 December 2009 | Jake Kanter

The UK’s Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has shelved a strategy to introduce a “best value tendering” system for legal aid services.

Justice ministers advised the Legal Services Commission (LSC) not to proceed with planned pilots for the scheme, which were scheduled to begin in the new year. Instead they have asked for existing plans to be adapted and improved by the spring.

The best value tendering (BVT) system would have judged lawyers on quality, price and the capacity to deliver sufficient quantity of service

The shake-up was to help the MoJ save £100 million on a legal aid spend of around £2 billion a year, by giving it better control of spend and more accurate budgeting. The existing system, which pays lawyers’ fees based on inputs and times spent on cases, is not thought to provide the right incentives for an efficient service.

But in a statement, the MoJ said current proposals are “unlikely to lead to the efficient, re-structured legal services market envisaged by Lord Carter in his 2006 review of legal aid procurement”.

A consultation on the original proposals in 2007 proved overwhelmingly unpopular among lawyers. Of the 202 formal responses received, only 5 per cent preferred BVT, making it the least favoured option of a handful put to them. The LSC maintained it was the best choice. But Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Legal Aid Minister Lord Bach said they had “listened carefully to the representations made by the Law Society and by legal aid firms” and have asked MoJ officials to work with the LSC, Law Society and individual practitioners to improve proposals by the end of March next year.

The MoJ rejected an assertion it was a U-turn that means all the work done by the LSC so far has been a waste of money. A spokeswoman told SM: “All of the development work undertaken by the LSC will be very important in reviewing BVT and in shaping a future scheme. We remain committed to developing a more radical approach that allows competitive tendering to set the price for legal aid work – more in line with Lord Carter’s original proposals.”

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