The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) will consider fast-tracking alternative business structure (ABS) applicants who want to bid for the government’s proposed criminal legal aid contracts, Legal Futures can reveal.
The government is currently digesting the thousands of responses to its Transforming Legal Aid consultation, which said that  for existing providers to adapt to the bigger caseloads on offer, they would “need to consider new forms of business structures, such as forming ABSs or joint ventures with other organisations”.
Critics have pointed out that with most ABS applications taking several months – or in a few cases more than a year – to receive approval, there seemed little prospect of being able to bring ABSs on stream in time for the procurement process as envisaged by the government. The point was also made by accountants Deloitte in their analysis of the reforms , which also suggested there was little appetite from investors in such ABSs anyway.
The consultation laid out a draft timetable starting with a pre-contract questionnaire stage in October-November 2013, with those applicants that make it through this initial vetting moving to the invitation to tender stage to be held in February and March 2014. The contracts would be awarded in June 2014 and begin operating three months later.
SRA executive director Samantha Barrass told Legal Futures: “Our general approach is to fast-track applications where there is a public interest reason for doing so. We will look at each case on its individual public interest merits, and that will of course be the case for any ABS applications of this type.”
Meanwhile, the Law Society has stepped up its calls for a delay to the implementation of the Quality Assurance Scheme for Advocates (QASA) in the light of the delay in approval of the scheme by the Legal Services Board (LSB) which in turn meant that publication of the QASA Handbook – which had been scheduled for yesterday – has also been delayed.
The LSB had an initial 28 days to consider application for the various rule changes that would bring in QASA and has taken up the option of extending that to 90 days, expiring on 11 August.
In a statement the Joint Advocacy Group – made up of the three regulators behind QASA, the SRA, Bar Standards Board and ILEX Professional Standards – said: “While [the extension] affects the publication of the QASA handbook, we believe the application will proceed on time to enable our current plans for implementation of the scheme.
“The first registration period is still due to start on schedule on 30 September 2013. The QASA handbook is now expected to be published in summer and a precise date will be provided once the outcome of the LSB’s deliberations on the scheme are known.”
Law Society chief executive Des Hudson reiterated its argument that it is a mistake to implement QASA at a time of major uncertainty for the profession, adding: “The delay to the release of the handbook will reduce the time solicitor-advocates will have to familiarise themselves with the scheme before the first phase for registration is due to open on 30 September for those on the Midland and Western Circuits.”