Sole Practitioners and Small Firms Update – January 2016

BSN provides updates and developments on areas of practice which are of particular interest or concern to sole practitioners and members of small firms. In that spirit BSN has been monitoring developments occasioned by the government’s policy to transform publicly funded legal work. Following on from the changes which resulted in the removal of many areas of law from the scope of civil legal aid, the paper Transforming Legal Aid – Next Steps (“TLA”) led to the launch of a tender competition aimed at reducing the number of criminal legal aid law firms.

Legal Aid Agency figures indicate that there are currently 1,600 firms, LLPs, companies and ABSs contracted to offer criminal legal aid under the 2010 Standard Crime Contract. The aim of TLA was to reduce this figure to 527. Attitudes towards the proposal were mixed. For small firms and sole practitioners this was a direct existential threat as the declared logic was to consolidate the market into larger contracting entities. For some larger legal firms and even some venture capitalists who do not do law, it was an opportunity to capture a corner of a re-modelled market, stripped of hundreds of firms. It offered the potential to yield greater profits for the smaller number or firms who remain standing.

The competition results announced towards the end of September 2015 attracted a rush of legal actions by unsuccessful firms (among whom were some surprising losing bidders!). There are currently in progress, two strands of legal action: judicial review and procurement law claims. Legal action resulted in automatic suspension of all steps to issue contracts or implement the government’s plans in those procurement areas affected by legal challenges.

The time table for conclusion of the proceedings does not appear to leave the government (were it to succeed in the legal actions) free to implement its own timetable for implementation, however, as at the 18th of January 2016, the Ministry of Justice had confirmed to criminal lawyers representative bodies their determination to proceed to issue contracts on the 1st of April 2016 in those procurement areas not affected by litigation.

Information reaching BSN suggests that there were some notable bid successes among its small firm membership and therefore if the government were to forge ahead with the transformed and consolidated legal aid market, BSN members should remain in the game.