The double-headed attack on the Government’s controversial new criminal legal aid contracts will be heard in two separate sets of proceedings in the spring.
A judicial review of the decision to proceed with the contracts will be heard by the Divisional Court in April. The legal challenge, brought by the Fair Crime Contracts Alliance – a coalition of firms – follows allegations made by a whistle-blower and denied by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), that the assessment process was flawed.
More than 100 individual firms, in 69 out of the 85 procurement areas, whose tender bids were unsuccessful, have also brought procurement law challenges under Part 7 of the Civil Procedure Rules. These cases will be heard in the Technology and Construction Court in May.
In a hearing at the Royal Courts of Justice in December, Lord Justice Laws and Sir Kenneth Parker declined the invitation made by all parties to hear the cases together, stating that the Divisional Court had no jurisdiction to hear Part 7 claims.
The challenges have resulted in the LAA delaying the start of the new contracts even longer that it had anticipated. As a result of the litigation the LAA had indicated that the contracts, which were supposed to begin in January, would begin in April. But that date will have to be put back until the end of both sets of proceedings.
The LAA admitted that a transcription error denied London firm Edward Fail, Bradshaw & Waterson a contract.
Though the Ministry of Justice has said that it will defend the challenges, it is understood that officials are re-examining the policy and that the Lord Chancellor, Michael Gove, might be close to announcing a policy U-turn.
Meanwhile, peers attacked the coalition government’s assault on legal aid, stating that it had no mandate for the cuts.
Liberal Democrat Lord Lester of Herne Hill QC told the House: ‘It is a state’s duty to provide a system of legal aid that enables everyone, including the poor and not so rich, to have effective access to courts and tribunals.’
While Lord Howarth of Newport, who defected from the Conservatives to Labour in 1995, blamed both his parties and said the coalition had no mandate for the cuts as their manifestos had not hinted at it.