Friday, 5 February 2010

LSC under attack

The Legal Services Commission (LSC) has been hit by another damning attack on its performance. In a report released this week, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is scathing about the LSC's performance in managing criminal legal aid. The PAC report follows hot on the heels of the National Audit Office report published in October 2009, which slammed the LSC for making overpayments of £24.7m to solicitors and other legal aid providers.

Not surprisingly, the latest report was critical about the LSC's abandoned plans for best value tendering (BVT), as this 'leaves the Commission not able to assess if it is paying a reasonable price for legal aid'. The report also highlighted the LSC's 'poor financial management and internal controls and deficient management information'. It cites the constant and expensive changes at senior management level as the reason why the LSC has not been able to implement the Carter reforms.

Chairman of the PAC Edward Leigh, the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, believes the LSC does not possess the 'basic information' on the costs and profitability of law firms which is necessary to set a fair price for legal aid services. This echoes criticisms which have been made by the Law Society and other organisations representing lawyers.

In a nod to the Magee Review of legal aid delivery, the PAC report was highly critical of the LSC's lack of a clear strategic direction, which the committee believes is added to by the 'confusion and uncertainty' surrounding its relationship with the Ministry of Justice (MoJ). LAG takes this to mean the row which has been going on behind the scenes between the LSC and the MoJ over control of policy.

One important point which the report makes is the need for the LSC to gather feedback from the users of legal aid. With reference to police station work, the report's authors believe such feedback would be useful in investigating why only half of people take up their right to legal aid. The report also suggests a cap on the earnings which individual lawyers can draw from legal aid. Could this spell the end of the £1m legal aid QC?

Over the past two years, criminal legal aid has been in turmoil with the threat of BVT and the continuing arguments over cuts in fee levels. The PAC report reflects this, but offers few solutions.