A Birmingham law firm's contract dispute with the Legal Services Commission - in which it claimed to be a victim of computer hacking - has lead to a judicial review.
Mushtaq & Co, based in Bristol Street, said it missed out on a vital legal aid contract after its electronic application form was ‘mysteriously altered’ – and will have its day in the High Court in March.
The dispute revolves around the answer to one crucial question, with the Birmingham firm claiming its electronic application was hacked and its answer changed.
It says despite putting down that it has a Birmingham office, it was turned down because the application form said it did not – despite Mushtaq & Co having been a feature of Birmingham’s legal scene for two decades.
It meant the firm, which deals in family and criminal law, was ruled out of the running for the right to handle family and child protection cases in the city.
Head of the company Rifat Mushtaq said the form was completed correctly on October 17 last year but was altered without her knowledge a day later.
“On October 18 a submission went in whereby it amended the application from a ‘yes’ to a ‘no’,” she said
“It meant that the LSC was told that we did not have a permanent office in Birmingham where we practise – when we have had for years.
“Had the answer been yes I would have got a contract.
“This was a submission that had been made by someone after seven in the evening on October 18 when our office was closed.
“It seems to me some sort of mischief is at play here. Everyone knows if you did not have an office in the procurement area you would not get it. It would be suicidal putting an application like that in.”
The process enabled applications to be amended up until the October 22 deadline but Ms Mushtaq said no one at her firm did so and that after initially completing the form she took a hard copy which she filed away and “forgot about”.
Ms Mushtaq subsequently discovered her firm had missed out on January 3 this year and said the news came as a complete shock.
The row with the Legal Services Commission (LSC) deepened when the firm claimed the LSC would not discuss the matter, adding that it refused an offer of mediation by a retired judge.
The company was then granted an injunction under Public Contracts Regulations and asked for a judicial review of the application process, a move which threatened to halt the rollout of the Government’s new legal aid system.
Had the injunction remained in place it would have stopped the handing out of legal aid contracts to 2,100 law firms beginning in April – potentially leaving thousands of people without legal advice.
But at the High Court in Birmingham this week the injunction was lifted, enabling the LSC to continue with the rollout, with a March 15 date set for a judicial review.
The LSC is defending the action. It said that it has issued 2,100 legal aid contracts which start from April, and that Mushtaq & Co’s complaint was the only one of this type – suggesting it was not a problem with the tender process.
A spokesman said: “We held an open tender for organisations to bid for legal aid contracts from April 2013 and bids were received from 3,828 offices. The LSC is obliged to treat all bidders equally. The LSC will be defending the case brought against us by Mushtaq & Co.”
Investigations into its telephone records have taken place and staff even subjected to polygraph tests to clear them of any involvement.
A police investigation has also been launched on the back of the claim, with computers set to be removed from the firm’s offices.
The company, which employs three members of staff, has been based on outskirts of Birmingham city centre since it was established in 1993.