MoD embarks on panel review after ditching plans to scrap roster

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) is on the hunt for an expanded panel after turning its back on the idea of scrapping or reducing its dedicated roster. 

The department has launched its first panel review in five years after extending the term of its slimmed-down roster last year. MoD commercial lawyer Andrew Fox delayed the 2014 review in order to consider using only the revamped central government panel put in place two years ago.

However conflict issues within its seven-strong MoD panel and the need for large commercial projects expertise caused the team to launch a fresh tender process. 

The department has set a 31 July deadline for expressions of interest and will launch the tender process next month. Responses will be due by the end of September with a new roster in place for the New Year.

Burges Salmon, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer and Herbert Smith Freehills could all be in line to win one of up to three new spots. All were all chopped from the MoD’s seven-strong roster in 2010 following a tender process aimed at reducing the number of panel firms.  

“We’ve said we want up to 10 firms this time,” said Fox. “That’s because we would like a bit more choice. Some have been conflicted out in the past and having seven firms has meant we’re limited for choice.” 

He added: “Going down to seven was not the wrong thing to do at the time but it is maybe more beneficial to come back a bit.”

The department currently uses a mixture of panel firms and a centralised government panel for projects over £200m and often runs mini-tenders across both rosters for large projects.The MoD is a big user of external lawyers within the goverment, last year increasing  its spend on external lawyers to £10m in 2012/13 from £3m a year earlier, despite its number of in-house legal staff climbing up to 230 (6 May 2014). 

When the central panel was revamped in 2013, the team was forced to consider whether it still needed a separate MoD panel. The Government Procurement Service (GPS), now the Crown Commercial Service, unveiled the new central roster two years ago with a new dedicated litigation sub-panel and dedicated finance and regulation sub-panel (31 January 2013).

However the MoD has decided that its need for sector-specialist and large-scale commercial work means it will continue to need a dedicated roster. The panel currently includes Field Fisher Waterhouse and Simmons & Simmons, which won new spots at the last review. Dentons, Mills & ReevePinsent Masons, Shepherd & Wedderburn and Wragge & Co also retained places.

The MoD has a history of handing places back to firms which have previously lost panel spots. In 2010 it returned Simmons & Simmons to its old spot after kicking it off the roster four years previously, when the panel was cut from 12 firms to eight (20 January 2006).

The firm continued to clinch key roles on MoD mandates despite being booted off, including advising on a £16bn training programme the following year (23 January 2007). By February 2007 the firm had managed to earn more than £1m from MoD work and the firm was replaced on the next roster review three years later.

There is no guaranteed workflow for MoD panel firms and it is not organised into lots like the central panel. The in-house team is currently working on the criteria for the tender.