The battle for criminal legal aid contracts is underway, with Duncan Lewis – which describes itself as the country’s largest legal aid provider – unveiling a consortium that will bid for duty provider contracts nationwide.
It has joined forces with East London’s criminal defence law firm SJ Law and West London practice MB Law to put together a team of more than 200 duty solicitors. Talks with other firms are also ongoing.
The government’s plans – which were unsuccessfully challenged in court by the Law Society and criminal law solicitor groups – will see the current 1,600 duty solicitor contracts across England and Wales slashed to 527. The closing date for bids is 5 May.
Jason Bruce, practice director of Duncan Lewis, said: “We are delighted to be bringing the talents and experience of Duncan Lewis, SJ Law and MB Law together in our bids, which in turn, will ensure that clients are serviced in the best possible way.
“With the recent criminal legal aid cuts of 8.75% to be soon supplemented by a further cut of 8.75%, it is vital that there are strategic partnerships in place among reputable law firms to ensure the long-term delivery of a cost-effective criminal defence legal service; access to justice for clients nationwide requires this.”
Vijesh Saujani, managing partner of SJ Law, added that the consortium would provide a home for lawyers from firms which decided not to bid for contracts. “All three firms are determined to secure a long-term future in the provision of the highest-quality criminal defence legal aid services and continue to be the UK’s largest provider of specialist legal aid services and are looking forward to working with each other.”
To support solicitors, the Law Society has published a ‘delivery partnership’ template agreement, and also warned the compliance officers for legal practice (COLPs) at firms deciding their future that they need to think about the financial viability of any proposed bid in the light of their obligations under the SRA Handbook.
Meanwhile, the Solicitors Regulation Authority has urged new entities bidding for contracts, but which are not yet authorised to practise, to make an application for authorisation as soon as possible.
A series of events has been put into place to support criminal practitioners and firms to go through the authorisation process, with one in London tomorrow and a webinar on 27 April.
Jane Malcolm, SRA executive director of external affairs, said: “Our turnaround time for applications is relatively short. Some firms may, however, have complex needs which will take more time to work through.
“By getting in touch with us now and taking part in events we have planned to support new applicants, firms will have a clearer picture of what they need to do to get authorised.”