The legal aid bill returns to the Lords tomorrow as the final stages of the Parliamentary process draw near. We are now in “ping pong” where the Lords and Commons try to agree a final version of the bill.
Last week, the Commons overturned all the Lords amendments, although ministers did make two more concessions, one on the definition of domestic violence and a rather less clear or useful one on welfare benefits appeals.
Now the Commons version of the bill goes back to the Lords; unless the Lords reject the removal of their amendments tomorrow it will become law.
Whatever happens tomorrow, within days or at most a week or two, the bill becomes law. Then starts the process of bringing it into force.
There will need to be detailed regulations issued, a new version of the Funding Code drafted, and new contract terms written. The LSC has already consulted with representative bodies on the Standard Terms of a new contract, but with the final terms of the bill still uncertain it can not consult on the Specification, either with representative bodies or more widely.
At the recent Provider Reference Groups, very little detail beyond what was in the recent headline document was given. It seems the plan is still to open a tender process in May, announce the results by the end of the year and start new contracts in April 2013. However, according to Hugh Barrett, who was questioned on this at the London PRG at the end of March, even such fundametal issues as the allocation mechanism for matter starts are not yet resolved. It seems the options are the licensing approach outlined by Bill Callaghan in February, or the pro rata approach adopted in last year’s family tender. But no decisions had been made. We understand that the LSC only began the process of engaging with representative bodies on the tender process in the week just gone and it is already the last week of April.
Even last week’s concessions in the Commons will have changed the detail of the future scheme – more family matters and welfare benefits matters will need to be made available, the detailed contract rules and regulations will now be different. There may yet be more to come.
How can a tender process open before the details of what are to be tendered for – the regulations, Funding Code, contract specification – have been drafted, consulted on, finalised and published? How can providers bid until they know the detailed terms and matter start allocations for which they will be bidding? Can all this be done in the next four or five weeks, as the timetable demands? Even if the opening of the tender in May is simply an expression of interest or PQQ, can it be done by September, which is surely the latest possible date for full tenders to happen for contract starts in April 2013?
Royal assent to the legal aid bill is the closing of a chapter, but not the end of the story.