PLANS to reduce the number of solicitors firms in the UK allowed to undertake criminal duty solicitor work from 1,600 to 527 have been abandoned by the Justice Secretary Michael Gove.

The surprise move comes after the plan attracted widespread opposition from lawyers, judges and advisory bodies. Part of a proposed cut in fees has also been suspended.

Duty solicitors provide independent legal advice in police stations and courts under a legal aid scheme. Under current contracts duty solicitors agree to be on 24-hour call without payment and are paid a fixed fee to attend at a police station within 40 minutes of a request to advise detainees. Critics of the new contracts suggested that a drastic reduction in the number of contracts would reduce the availability and quality of advice.

In a ministerial statement issued by Michael Gove, (on the January 28) it was announced that the new contracts would be abandoned given the difficulties with the scheme and the reduction in spend that had already been achieved by cuts in previous years.

Ashley Harkus, managing partner of Everett Tomlin Lloyd and Pratt solicitors, which has offices around Gwent, and former president of the Monmouthshire Incorporated Law Society, said: “In Gwent, the proposal was to reduce the number of firms able to undertake this work from 24 to five, in South Wales seven contracts were to have been awarded to cover Cardiff to Swansea. This would have had a massive impact on the majority of high street firms who, for decades, have been providing high quality advice often during antisocial hours for ever reducing reward. The new scheme always appeared unworkable.

“The new contracts were part of a wider aim to cut the legal aid budget by a third, which has now been largely achieved.

"The new contracts were due to start in January 2016 but had been postponed after leave was given for a judicial review of the tendering process after it transpired that the complex tender applications were in part marked by staff from a recruitment agency with no experience of contracting or the criminal justice system.

“Many respected commentators described the process as shambolic and more than 90 firms issued proceedings based on alleged basic flaws in the marking.

“The proposed new contracts created uncertainty and concern for the firms and their staff that undertake this type of work. The fairness of the process and rationale behind the new contracts have been widely and in my view, rightly criticised.

"While the decision will be welcomed by the majority of firms, other than those who had taken steps in expectation of a contract award, all are likely to agree that a huge amount of time and expense has been wasted by firms and the Ministry of Justice on what ultimately has been an entirely pointless process.

“The new Justice Secretary (Michael Gove) appears to have spent the majority of his time unpicking the mess left by his predecessor and it’s at least hopeful that in his statement he recognised that criminal legal aid solicitors perform a vital role in the Justice system.”