Criminal legal aid solicitors fear competitive tendering is a done deal, after the new legal aid minister hinted last week that the government would forge ahead with the plans irrespective of the results of the current review of procurement.

Making her inaugural speech in her new role at the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) conference in Birmingham, Bridget Prentice MP said that although any future legal aid decisions were dependent on Lord Carter?s review, ?the Legal Services Commission?s current plan is to launch an auction process in April 2006, with implementation in October 2006?. The pilot is expected to start in London, where there is a perceived oversupply of firms.

But LAPG director Richard Miller said there had been insufficient consultation to bring the process in so early. ?Once firms know what is expected of them in the bidding process, they then need time to make the necessary business adjustments and to gather and analyse the relevant data to enable them to submit sensible bids,? he argued. ?Any process commenced before April 2007 is bound to be fundamentally flawed.?

Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said the announcement would leave firms confused. ?We thought there was supposed to be a review, but the minister seems to be saying the review will not detract from the [competitive tendering] process.?

Rob Brown, former president of the London Criminal Court Solicitors Association, agreed that the government had set down a ?wholly unrealistic timetable? if it were allowing firms just a few months to make business plans. ?The profession needs to know what?s happening,? he argued. ?Firms are blighted by uncertainty over taking on trainees, making investments, and renewing overdrafts and leases. This is a recipe for muddle.?

A Law Society spokesperson said: ?The minister, Bridget Prentice, was merely confirming assurances we have received from the government that no decisions will be taken on whether to implement price-competitive tendering proposals before the Carter review is over.?

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