Monday 06 May 2013 by Catherine Baksi
Only three of the 25 top-earning criminal legal aid firms will bid for a contract if the government's current scheme for price-competitive tendering (PCT) is introduced - and more than half would support a boycott, a poll by the Gazette can exclusively reveal.
The Gazette this week contacted the 25 criminal legal aid firms in the list of highest earners published by the Ministry of Justice last year.
Three - multi-practice national firm Noble Solicitors, regional defence firm Cartwright King and home counties full-service firm Hine Solicitors - said that they will bid if the scheme goes ahead.
Fourteen said they would not bid: Tuckers, The Johnson Partnership, Bhatia Best, Blackfords, Stevens Solicitors, Kaim Todner, GT Stewart, Edward Hayes, TV Edwards, Farleys, IBB, Howells, Burton Copeland and Lewis Nedas.
Eight others - EBR Attridge, Forbes, David Phillips & Partners, Martin Murray & Associates, Smith Partnership, Sternberg Reed, Mackesys and JD Spicer - said they were uncertain. All 25 respondents agreed that the current proposals are 'unworkable' and 15 said they would support a boycott.
The three firms who said they would bid stressed that their decision should not been seen as an endorsement of the proposals. The firms condemned the proposed PCT model as economically unviable and anti-competitive.
The removal of client choice has emerged as the most contentious feature. Greg Stewart, principal at GT Stewart, called it a 'charter for the 10-dollar-an-hour lawyer falling asleep while their clients get convicted'.
Danny Simpson, partner at Yorkshire legal aid firm Howells, suggested the proposals breach EU procurement regulations by being biased against small and medium-sized enterprises.
Jeremy Ornstin, director of London firm Lewis Nedas, said: 'The government seems to think that a viable legal service will be left intact, simply shrunken and delivering basically the same services, only more efficiently and cheaply.
'Nothing is further from the truth. You only have to see the shambles and the utter incompetence of tendering in the court interpreter contract to see what's going to happen.'
The Legal Aid Agency's director of commissioning Hugh Barrett has said that if not enough firms bid, the agency will introduce simple administrative fee cuts of around 20%. He indicated that this could be done regionally or nationally.
Meanwhile, Stobart Group has confirmed that it is likely to bid for a contract if the plans go ahead.
The company, best known for its haulage business, set up Stobart Barristers last year to provide fixed-fee legal services through direct access barristers. Trevor Howarth, group legal director, said last week that its service had been created with the government's changes in mind.