Ten green bottles hanging on a wall, ten green bottles hanging on a wall…..
It was anticipated that the announcement as to who had “won” (I use the word somewhat loosely) the new duty contracts pursuant to the Two Tier system was coming last Friday. Then it was not. It was put back to 15th October.
The MoJ informed those anxiously waiting that “(w)e regret that we will not be able to notify bidders this week about the outcome of the crime duty tender, as previously indicated. We understand the anxiety this could cause bidding organisations and are working hard to finalise the quality assurance required to make sure these important decisions are right.”
Now if one green bottle should accidentally fall…..
So what happened to cause the announcement to be put back? We do not actually know because the MoJ, despite their concern and their regret, have not actually deigned to tell those anxiously waiting what the hold up is.
It could well be that the delay is related to developments with a firm of solicitors called Blavo. It may be that it is not. It may well just be one hell of a coincidence.
For those that missed it in the middle of last week Blavo, a firm with a national profile and with areas of work including crime and mental health, announced that they were consulting on redundancies. There was talk of the impact of legal aid cuts and the need to restructure. The firm, it was said, was still financially secure.
Then the story took another twist with the LAA announcing that they had terminated all Blavo’s contracts and had referred the matter to the police.
Now I do not know if Blavo had applied for a Duty Contract. Given the nature of their profile I anticipate that they have. I do not know if they were to be awarded a contract. And we have no way of knowing if they are on the brink of collapse, are financially secure or have done anything to justify the action taken by the LAA. And, because the MoJ are not providing information, we do not know if this has caused the delay.
But let’s just imagine the worst case scenario for a moment. Let us imagine that they are really struggling. Let us imagine that there are some “irregularities” concerning their current contracts. Let us imagine they were just days away from getting one or more than one of the contracts on offer.
Now that throws up a whole load of questions. If all of the above imaginings are correct what does it say about the application and scrutiny process? If they were about to be awarded a contract and it transpires that they were in financial troubles and circumstances existed to justify termination of their contracts how did they pass “the quality assurance” tests?
And what if these circumstances came to light after the award of the contracts? Would other firms who missed out not be able to question how it is that an unviable firm got a contract and their viable firm did not? What if it took nine months of the contract irregularities to come out? So the firm already had a number of duty contracts and now the LAA realise that there were problems with their previous contracts. Nine months after consolidation their rival bidders may have been consolidated all the way to the dole queue….
That prospect is of particular concern when the firm undertakes other areas of “niche” work. Let us say Blavo do most of the mental health work in a town. They have one competitor that also provides that service. Both firms have been finding it tough since the Legal Aid cuts. Blavo get a crime contract, the other firm does not. The other firm goes out of business as a result. Then the irregularities come to light and the LAA terminates all the contracts. Suddenly you have no provision for mental health representation in that area. That is an advice desert. That is the game of Russian Roulette the MoJ are playing with our justice system.
Remember that the Duty Contract is no guarantee of long term security. There are more adjustments to the fees coming along. When I say “adjustments”, I mean cuts. Court closures can threaten the viability of firms (imagine Firm A have a healthy amount of own client work that tends to be in the court building just down the road from their office, when that court closes and they have to travel for up to an hour each way to represent these same clients that can suddenly impact upon the meagre profits they previously made).
On top of that there is uncertainty about how firms are going to be able to keep work in house. I do not for one moment imagine that there is going to be some sort of ban on in house advocacy but there is, now, uncertainty. If a firm was banking on being able to keep a percentage of work in house, they cannot bank on it any more.
This is the precarious market that the MoJ seem to make more precarious with every step they take. Hopefully Blavo’s current problems are all ironed out smoothly. Hopefully this is only a warning to the MoJ. It is, however, a warning they should heed. It does not take much for there to be…..
……no green bottles hanging on the wall.