Message from Resolution's chair
Dear Resolution member
We have taken the unusual step of sending this legal aid e-newsletter to all members in light of the recent civil bid round tender process. Today we have issued a news release about our legal aid survey which revealed grave concerns over the future provision of family legal aid. We have also written to the Minister and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) calling on them to immediately and publicly set out the steps they will take to meet any emerging access to justice issues.
The LSC has not yet published the results overall as many appeals are pending, but as the individual results for the bids started to come in it became clear that it was going to be very difficult to come up with a course of action that would be in the interests of our membership as a whole. The Executive Committee and the Legal Aid Committee have been in daily discussions about how best to respond.
Many people have expressed concern and a desire that “something be done” and we thought it would be helpful to set out what’s been done to date and what should happen next.
In recent weeks, the Legal Aid Committee have worked extremely hard to make sure that members have access to practical help and support in this difficult time. We have focussed on providing information to help members through the process. We have been in constant touch with the LSC to press them to improve their communications and processes. We have set up a LinkedIn group which many members have commented they found enormously helpful and have created a guide posted on the members’ website for those who wish to appeal their result.
We decided that we needed a clear and accurate picture of what the new landscape looks like before deciding on further courses of action and so on 28th July 2010 we circulated an e-survey to all legal aid members to help us get an accurate view of what has happened. We were the first group to act to gather information in this way.
Our survey has shown us that the impact has indeed been significant. Of the 561 firms who responded, 43% were successful in their family bids, 41% were unsuccessful and 15% were partially successful. These figures reflect the LSC’s own assessment. Many of those firms who have been successful have indicated that they are likely to recruit new staff. Similarly, those who have been unsuccessful have told us that redundancies are likely. There are already signs of significant movement in the market with mergers, acquisitions and staff joining successful firms.
There can be little doubt that the move to competitive tendering has not been handled as well as it could be. Since the Carter report was published we have fought strongly to protect our members’ interests and our clients’ access to justice. We have made continued representations about this civil bid round and have made many points about ensuring fair process, access to justice and quality. Unfortunately, the Government and the Legal Services Commission decided that a competitive bid round was what they wanted to impose and that inevitably meant there would be organisations that would gain and those that would lose.
Once the initial consultation over the civil bid round was published, we held a series of free road shows to gather views from different parts of the country to feed into our response, and made strong representations about the process and the new fixed fee regime.
We did not approve the selection criteria imposed by the Legal Services Commission and we complained very strongly about the lack of detailed consultation. We were not given the opportunity to make representations about the criteria, or point out the effect they would have. The Commission took the view that they were unable to consult with the representative groups because it might give a lead or advantage to some and therefore breach procurement law.
Following publication of the tender and the selection criteria we ran training throughout the country and published e-alerts explaining the process and highlighting to members the need to plan ahead to maximise points under the criteria. We laid on an additional accreditation round and a fast tracked domestic violence accreditation round to assist members to gain an extra 1 or 2 points under selection criteria number 2.
We expressed grave concerns over the impact of delays to the notification process for family legal aid bids when it became apparent that the timetable for letting firms know whether or not they had been successful had slipped.
The unhelpfully tight turnaround of this process has left our members with little time to respond to their award results. We are hearing that firms have already started to recruit new staff, make mergers and look into redundancies.
At this point it is difficult to judge what the exact impact on access to justice will be. Ninety percent of respondents to our survey said that they feared the results of the award of contracts would pose a serious threat to access to justice and we have received some very worrying comments about lack of provision in certain areas. However the survey was unable to provide a statistically sound picture of provision on a region by region basis. We have asked the Legal Services Commission for a detailed report as to precisely who has been awarded contracts and in what areas.
We also need to be alert to the fact that the Ministry of Justice policy assessment of courts and legal aid being undertaken in the context of the Government’s comprehensive spending review, is likely to throw up further challenges and changes in the next financial year. We shall be making very strong representations to this review both now and when it formally consults in the Autumn.
All in all it is clear that the future landscape for family legal aid is extremely uncertain. Indeed the LSC are not in a position to confirm that the three year contracts just awarded will not at some stage be terminated on six months notice if new recommendations of that review require such a step. I tell you this not to inflict greater despondency, but to make it clear just how big a challenge we face.
After careful thought and consideration it is the unanimous view of the National Committee that further delay and uncertainty around the civil bid round would have a far greater destabilising effect than the present situation. What the family law profession and clients need now more than ever is a period of stability to allow the market to adjust and for firms to be able to move forward and adjust as necessary to this new landscape.
We cannot therefore support the Law Society’s call for a delay in implementation. Nor do we think that a judicial review and the accompanying uncertainty it would bring is a sensible way forward. We recognise that this approach may not be universally popular, but consider that the need for stability is paramount. That is not to say that we will “sit back and do nothing”.
We have written to the Minister and the LSC calling on them to immediately and publicly set out the steps they will take to meet any emerging access to justice issues. We have also asked them to explain how they will monitor and police the situation.
You have told us throughout this process how useful you have found the practical support, such as the late accreditation round, our training courses, e-newsletters and detailed guidance we’ve been able to offer. We’re committed to continuing to provide this practical help and support and will keep abreast of all developments in the area of family legal aid to help you navigate this new landscape. We understand, for instance, that it may be possible for some practitioners to register with the LSC as self-employed advocates and we will provide further details of this as it becomes available.
Today we are launching a “legal aid opportunities” page within our member’s website where you can search and advertise legal aid vacancies, merger opportunities and post your CV. In recognition of the unusual circumstances around the bid process, we have waived the usual fee of £150 plus VAT.
We will be running training courses on new family fees and managing your new family contract, and will develop new courses in response to your feedback.
You can rest assured that we will be pressing Ministers and the LSC for an assurance that the appeals process will be speedy and fair, and for a formal commitment that they will take stock at the end of that process and agree with practitioner groups a package of measures that meet any immediate access to justice issues. We will also do our utmost to represent your interest and those of your clients in the upcoming review of legal aid mentioned above.
This has been a difficult and stressful experience for everyone and I’d like to thank the legal aid committee for their tireless work. We should not forget that they are all legal aid lawyers who volunteer their time. They’ve been working hard throughout this not only on their own bids but also on behalf of the profession - their experience reflects the wider picture, with some having been successful and others not. Above all I’d like to thank you all for your feedback to us through LinkedIn and our survey and please do continue to contact us with your ideas and views.
News release: Survey reveals grave concerns
Survey reveals grave concerns over future provision of family legal aid in England and Wales
90 percent of family lawyers believe the latest legal aid moves will damage access to justice and result in widespread redundancies across the profession. Resolution is calling on the government for an urgent public statement of the practical steps they will take to deal with emerging access to justice issues.
“The number of family legal aid firms has been significantly cut with the LSC’s own figures showing a reduction in the number of firms across the country from 4,500 in 2000 to 1,300 in 2010,” said David Allison, Chair of family lawyer’s association Resolution.
“Our survey of 561 firms has shown us that 40% were wholly unsuccessful in their recent bids to provide family legal aid and 15% were partially successful. These firms have told us that redundancies of up to 542 are expected – and these figures are likely to rise as we hear from other firms who have been affected.
“There are signs already of movement in the market, with mergers, acquisitions and movement of staff, but it remains to be seen whether the market can fully adjust quickly enough. Whilst we knew that competitive tendering was coming, delays in the award of contracts has left firms little time to open new offices, make people redundant or plan recruitments,” said David Allison.
The survey of family legal aid lawyers was conducted by Resolution to gain a picture of the immediate impact of the outcomes of a recent bid round on the picture of family law in England and Wales.
The survey reveals real concerns that that those in need of emergency legal aid such as domestic abuse victims or those in need of specialist legal advice on issues like forced marriage will be unable to find the legal help and advice they need. For example, one of the respondents to our survey said:
“Some of those who failed are the preferred choice for the police Independent Domestic Violence Advocates who are involved in running the women’s refuge. ”
The survey also pointed to signs of emerging advice deserts in a number of areas. Members in Dorset, Cornwall, Bedfordshire and Lincolnshire in particular have expressed grave concerns that the number of legal aid providers will be insufficient to meet demand.
One member commented:
“Cornwall has been decimated in terms of providers – there are now only five providers covering eleven offices across the county. Of those eleven offices, six belong to a single firm. Conflicts are going to be a massive issue.”
David Allison said: “Our survey has painted a very worrying picture for the future of legal aid provision in England and Wales.
“We have pressed the LSC for a full picture of the contracts awarded but this will not be published until the appeals process ends. Our survey tells us that 86% of those who were unsuccessful will be appealing and it is clear that the complete picture is unlikely to emerge until very shortly before the contracts start on the 14th October.
“We have written to the Minister and the LSC and are calling on them to immediately and publicly set out the steps they will take and the practical measures they will introduce to meet any emerging access to justice issues.”
Notes to editors:
1. Resolution is a group of over 5,500 family lawyers in England and Wales. Established 25 years ago, it promotes a non-confrontational, constructive approach to resolving family disputes. To find out more, visit http://www.resolution.org.uk/
For more information please contact:
Teresa Richardson, Resolution Head of Communications: 0203 195 0190/ 07894 981 020
Leonora Merry, Resolution Communications Officer: 0203 195 0191/ 07971 300 024
Legal aid survey results
Many thanks to those of you who took the time to complete our online survey about the civil bids round. Over 600 of you responded, representing 561 firms in England and Wales who bid for family contracts.
The survey found that in total 232 firms (41 percent) were wholly unsuccessful in their family bids, 239 (43 percent) were wholly successful and 83 (15 percent) were partially successful. 7 responses were unclear. Of those that were partially successful, the average success rate was 50 percent (that is to say the average bidder received half of what they bid for).
- 60 percent of respondents felt that the numbers of new matter starts were about right, with 34 percent saying that they were less than they needed, and six percent said that they were more than they needed
- Of the 322 firms that were successful or partially successful, 19 percent will be recruiting
- Of the 315 firms that were unsuccessful or partically successful, 60 percent will be making redundancies
- 45.6 percent of respondents will be appealing their decisions, with 86 percent of the unsuccessful bidders submitting appeals
On access to justice, a staggering 90 percent of you said that the results of the award of contracts poses a serious threat to access to justice. We received hundreds of comments from concerned members up and down the country about the emergence of advice deserts, conflicts of interest and loss of specialist solicitors.
New legal aid opportunities page
In an effort to provide practical help and assistance to all those members affected by the civil bids process we have created a new web page in the members' website. In recognition of the unusual circumstances around the bid process, Resolution's executive committee have waived the usual fee of £150 plus VAT and are offering the opportunity to advertise legal aid vacancies and other opportunities free of charge on this page.
If you would like to advertise on this page - either if you have a vacancy, are looking for a new post, or would like to explore opportunities for mergers or other partnerships with other firms - then you should email the text of your advertisement together with a PDF of any relevant files to email@example.com.
Legal aid LinkedIn group
In response to a growing number of enquiries about the civil bids round process we established this group as an online user group for Resolution legal aid lawyers.
Membership of the group quickly grew to almost 500 and members used the group as a place to share information and talk over issues of concern throughout the process.
Those members were able to share what was happening in their area as they all waited anxiously to learn whether they had been awarded contracts. Many users commented on how helpful they found the support of their fellow professionals. Through the LinkedIn group we were also able to pick up on the desire for additional legal aid courses in some areas and Michael Eddowes, Head of Training and the legal aid committee have been responding to this and to other queries.
LSC mediation exemption assessment
The LSC has asked for responses to a short consultation on their proposals to tighten the current exemptions to mediation.
They have specifically stated that they only wish to receive responses from representative bodies and not from individuals.
They have asked 2 questions:
1. Do you agree with the proposed changes to the current exemptions? Please provide reasons for your answer.
2. Are there any other exemptions that you think should be removed? Please provide reasons for you answer.
If you would like to respond to this consultation please submit your replies to these questions to Sarah Lloyd by email firstname.lastname@example.org by 20 August at the latest in order for us to comply with the deadline of 5 September set by the LSC.
Full details are set out in the documents below.