Botched job at the heart of the legal aid system – revealed by whistleblower

In a week when criminal defence firms are due to find out if they have won one of a reduced number of contracts to provide 24-hour duty solicitor cover at police stations from the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), Freddie Hurlston (a former employee of the LAA) made contact with the Law Gazette, and made a number of whistleblowing claims about the staffing and assessment process.

Hurlston made the claims public after raising his concerns with LAA chief executive Matthew Coats on 6 October by email, to which he is yet to receive a response. He has alleged that things were so bad that the Cabinet Office eventually became involved.

His claims centre on the staffing and suitability of the staff used for assessing the bids from criminal defence firms – it’s a process where you expect suitability trained and experienced staff to undertake the work but Hurlston claims that the process fell short of any ‘best practice’.

Crystal Bolton from law firm Michael Lewin Solicitors commented “Mr Hurlston found that many of the staff assessing the bids were from Brook Street temporary staff agency and had no previous experience or knowledge of legal aid or any understanding of public sector procurement, which is quite frankly a poor way to run a bid of this size and importance.”

Hurlston admits that some training was provided but that it was ‘very limited’ and couldn’t cover specific issues that were raised in the procurement process, or what to look out for when awarding points.

The agency received around 1,000 bids. 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.

“It was clear after a few days of assessment that there were insufficient staff to assess all the questions with any quality,” Hurlston continued.

Georgina Halford-Hall, from Whistleblowers UK commented, “Yet again, we see someone who should be congratulated for alerting managers to concerns or wrongdoing in the public sector. Let’s face it anyone in any organisation should be able to raise issues like this without fear of retribution or personal detriment. The business or public body concerned should take all allegations seriously and deal with them in an open, honest and transparent manner. Furthermore we have received calls from staff at the Legal Aid Agency who are very concerned about staffing cuts and issues relating to the outsourcing of the collection of legal aid fees. We anticipate further issues arising from this department over the months to come.”

As part of the allegations, Freddie Hurlston also suggests that, as the timescales for the bidding process became tighter, staff from around the LAA were just thrown at the bids to get them sorted, again with little or no training. Also as time went on the LAA moderation process whilst ‘initially consistent’ and focused on bids in one procurement area, became very generic.

The Law Society have since become involved and have contacted 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 LAA said that they ‘strongly deny 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.’

‘Assessors received a comprehensive training package to ensure transparent, consistent and fair treatment of all applicant organisations. The assessment process has been subject to careful moderation and management at all stages.’

Whistleblowers UK, provides support and advice to whistleblowers. If you know of any criminal activities in your business or you are thinking about whistleblowing, contact WBUK in the first instance by emailing helpme@wbuk.org or telephone 01302 944 785 ( 01302 WHISTL)

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