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The Legal Services Commission (LSC) is facing strong criticism from the law society and practitioners for its handling of the recent tender round of family legal aid contracts.
The Law Society's chief executive, Des Hudson, wrote to the LSC last week after it emerged that almost half of the firms tendering for legal aid family contracts were turned down.
In his letter Mr Hudson called for a halt to the commencement of the new contracts which are due to start on 14 October. "We believe that the LSC should suspend the implementation of the tender round pending an urgent but thorough and public evaluation," he said.
The town of Poole in Dorset has a population of 140,000 people yet just one firm will now be able to offer family legal aid. It is just one of many "advice deserts" that the Law Society has identified.
Mr Hudson continued: "We understand that in east Cornwall one firm has been allocated all the matter starts which means that, in any case where more than one party is legally aided, the second will have to find a solicitor elsewhere in the county - probably more than an hour's drive away. We believe that the situation in Wales, in Northumberland and in Lincolnshire gives rise to similar concerns. We do not understand how this is consistent with the commission's duty to secure access to justice."
Colin Mitchell, a non-legal aid collaborative family law solicitor at Coles Miller's Poole office said: "There is a significant need for the public funding of family and welfare services in the Poole. If there remains only one or so legal aid lawyers in Poole, then demand will outstrip supply.
"There will be those who need prompt and proper legal advice but will not be able to get it. For example, in cases of domestic violence there is often the need for swift action with an injunction application. If help is not available via the family courts, then pressure could fall on the police. This will engage the criminal justice system which is more likely to inflame a difficult family situation rather than help. Action via the family courts with specialist family solicitors is geared to defuse and resolve problems for the long term, which the criminal courts simply can not do."
In London Anne-Marie Hutchinson, a family lawyer with an international reputation for her work in child abduction and forced marriage cases has also been refused a legal aid contract for her specialism.
She is appealing the LSC's decision, arguing that forced marriage and honour based violence cases should be given the same weight for the purposes of the LSC contract tender as other areas of family law. However if her appeal is unsuccessful she may be forced to move to another firm with her team.
Ongoing cases will not be affected by the cutbacks as all providers can continue with those opened before the new contracts come into force on 14 October.
A spokesperson for the LSC said: "An insistence on ensuring quality advice where it is needed is at the heart of our tendering process. We are confident we have achieved quality advice provision throughout England and Wales."