Whistleblower claims legal aid contracting process flawed

A former insider at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has alleged that the contract procurement process due to conclude today is flawed, according to the Law Society Gazette. Criminal defence firms are due to find out if they have won one of a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour cover at police stations.

Freddie Hurlston, who worked as a bid assessor for the agency between July and September this year, has contacted the Gazette to make a number of incendiary claims about the staffing and assessment process.

So inadequate was the LAA’s handling of the exercise that the Cabinet Office eventually became involved, he alleges. “It is generally accepted as best practice in public sector procurement that suitably qualified staff are used, that they are properly trained for the job and that a timetable is followed that allows due consideration of the bids,” Hurlston told the Gazette. “None of these best practice objectives were met.”

Mr Hurlston, who was previously head of criminal justice system initiatives at the Legal Services Commission, said many of the staff assessing the bids were from Brook Street temporary staff agency had no knowledge of legal aid or previous experience of public sector procurement.

The agency received around 1,000 bids. Mr Hurlston said there were 17 questions in each bid and the questions were sub-divided into three or four parts leading to a total of around 50,000 answers to be assessed.  

Law Society president Jonathan Smithers said: “We can confirm that an individual has contacted the Law Society with concerns about the duty solicitor tender process and that we are taking these concerns seriously. We have written to the Ministry of Justice requesting a full response supported by evidence which demonstrates that the evaluation of the tenders was conducted fairly and appropriately.”

A spokesperson for the agency said: “The LAA strongly denies these allegations. We have followed a robust and fair process in assessing duty tender bids. We have taken additional time to notify bidders precisely to make sure these important decisions are right.
The assessment process has been subject to careful moderation and management at all stages.”