Problems with the proposed rules for criminal contracts and concerns over the workability of the process leave the Ministry of Justice 'some way off' a viable scheme, the Law Society has warned as a legal challenge to the new contracting regime begins.
The ministry is introducing new contracting arrangements alongside £215m cuts to the criminal legal aid budget. When the current contracts end in June 2015, they will be replaced by two-tier contracts - one for own-client work, available to all qualifying firms, and a second for duty contracts, available to a limited number of firms.
Today a judicial review challenging the legality of the ministry's decision to go ahead with the fee cuts and contract changes begins at the High Court. It was brought jointly by the Criminal Law Solicitors' Association and the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association.
The groups received more than £100,000 from the profession plus £45,000 from the Law Society to fund the action. They claim an economic report by accountants KPMG was withheld until after the consultation on the reforms closed, and was used incorrectly by the ministry to support its proposals.
A Law Society spokesman said: 'With the concerns the groups are raising through the judicial review, and the problems we have identified in the Ministry of Justice's proposed process, we believe the ministry is still some way from having a viable scheme that it can introduce as it currently plans in October.'
The tender process for own-client work ended in May. Last week the MoJ published information setting out the bidding rules for those firms looking to apply for duty provider contracts.
A ministry spokesman said: 'We intend to robustly make our case before the court.