Health secretary Frank Dobson has been urged to intervene to stop high street lawyers taking over the legal service of the Association of Community Health Councils of England and Wales.
CHCs fear they will lose access to specialist advice and that commercial law firms want to acquire the service as a 'loss leader' to gain access to lucrative medical litigation.
The NHS Executive has received 27 applications to provide the service, all but one from private firms of solicitors. The non-commercial bid is from ACHCEW, which has run the service under an agreement with the NHS Executive since September 1996.
The service was put out to competitive tender in November without consulting ACHCEW, which had already sought an extension under the review provisions of the existing agreement.
Steve Joliffe, section head of the NHS Executive quality and consumers branch, explained to ACHCEW director Toby Harris that consultation 'seemed unnecessary' because the service was not being changed.
The legal service has helped CHCs to campaign against local plans to change services. For example, Oxfordshire CHC was able to force the local health authority to meet its legal duty to consult it over plans to move the Radcliffe Infirmary to Headington.
Barnet CHC used the service to mount a judicial review against the local HA and former health secretary Stephen Dorrell over plans to close the accident and emergency department at Edgware Hospital.
Barnet CHC chair Elizabeth Manero has written to Mr Dobson protesting that the tendering exercise is likely to result in the contract going to a private firm. That would 'definitely reduce the accessibility of the service because the CHC will just be one of a large number of clients'.
She added: 'The declared reason for the planned change is an objection by the NHS Executive to the legal officer advising ACHCEW on policy issues. We do not understand this.'
Mr Joliffe told her: 'We have no difficulty with the legal officer advising on legal aspects of policy. (However) ...the post is not intended to be a policy development officer post, too.'
He told the Journal: 'We are not saying that it has been done. It is simply that we wanted to make it clear it was not a policy development post but a legal information and advice position. It is not something I view too seriously.'
Mr Joliffe added that the NHS Executive had a duty to test whether it was getting value for money from the contract.
Tom Fellows, chair of Oxfordshire CHC, believes there is a real danger of commercial law firms making their tender a 'loss leader' to gain access to lucrative medical litigation, because most CHCs are 'pestered' by lawyers looking for such work.
Academic lawyer Eileen Scott, who chairs the North West regional CHC association, says that CHCs are dealing with public law, a specialist legal area not usually practised by commercial solicitors.
'I am not convinced that firms of solicitors, who are by and large conveyancers and drafters of wills, can supply the necessary service,' she said.