Health officials have abandoned moves to find new lawyers for a national patients' group.

The competitive tendering exercise for the legal service of the Association of Community Health Councils for England and Wales has been halted by the NHS Executive because none of the bids was 'fully satisfactory'.

Instead, ACHCEW is to be allowed to continue providing the service, which has enabled community health councils to mount legal challenges to health authority and trust plans to change local health services.

Steve Joliffe, head of the NHS Executive quality and consumers branch, told the Journal that most bids had failed on either quality or cost criteria. In some cases, there was a possible conflict of interest because private firms of solicitors might be advising HAs and CHCs in the same areas.

'So we have gone back to ACHCEW and we are prepared to continue with the current service that they provide for the next three years,' Mr Joliffe said.

An NHS Executive proposal that the pounds89,000-plus inflation cost of the service should be met by charging individual CHCs for using it has been withdrawn after protests by ACHCEW's ruling standing committee.

The outcome has delighted CHCs, which feared they would lose access to specialist legal advice, with the service handed over to high street solicitors making low bids to gain access to lucrative medical litigation.

Mr Joliffe said that the tendering exercise had been 'quite useful because it has identified that the current level of funding represents value for money'.

He added: 'So we certainly got that out of it. We did not appreciate that before.'

Most of the 27 applications to provide the service were from private legal firms.

ACHCEW's own bid was rejected as too expensive. It wanted pounds140,000 to expand the service from the present level of one legal officer, to add a legal assistant and more administrative support.

The use of the legal service by local CHCs has increased every quarter since it was introduced in September 1996. ACHCEW will now be seeking funding from the Welsh Office to provide a service in the principality.