Wednesday, 28 July 2010

'Carnage' as family solicitors lose legal aid contracts

LAG has just advised by the Legal Services Commission (LSC) that 1,300 out of 2,400 firms have been awarded contracts in family law. The new contracts are due to commence in October and firms were invited to tender for them by 21 April this year.

LAG has heard from areas in which the number of firms providing legal aid in family law from October will drop dramatically. For example, in Leeds, only ten firms will remain in the system, down from 35. In Stoke, six firms remain, with ten disappearing, leaving those six to cover a city with a population of just under a quarter of a million.

'From where I am sitting, it looks like carnage out there,' said Carol Storer, director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group. She is advising those firms which have not secured a contract to appeal against the decision. If many firms follow this advice, it could be some weeks before it is known which firms will be providing legal aid under the new contracts.

To select between firms, the LSC scored them against criteria such as quality of work and having a permanent office in the area in which they want to provide services. One of the key criteria was employing experienced staff to supervise and undertake the work. For example, points were awarded for having a member of staff accredited by the Law Society's Children's Panel. LAG understands that many firms have applied without having the necessary staff in place and are relying on recruiting them before the new contracts commence. This has led to accusations by some losers of underhand tactics by successful firms.

The Law Society believes that the level of refusals for family contracts is far higher than either the LSC or the Ministry of Justice envisaged and has today written to the legal aid minister, Jonathan Djanogly. It is asking him to consider whether the market can cope with 'this degree of restructuring' without compromising the availability of family legal aid services for members of the public.

Social welfare law
The LSC has advised LAG that it believes around 70 per cent of existing social welfare law providers will be allocated new matter starts (NMS). It is undertaking 'due diligence checks' in five areas and will confirm the numbers of providers which have been successful in obtaining NMS once these are complete. LAG has spoken to a number of providers, including Simon Harris, chief executive of Stoke-on-Trent Citizens Advice Bureau: 'The bureau was allocated virtually everything we asked for. Overall, we feel quite relieved.' The bureau has contracts in housing, welfare benefits, debt, immigration and employment.

Image: Legal Action Group

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Citizens Advice seeks divine intervention?

Fear stalked the campus of York University, along with Church of England clergy, at the Citizens Advice Bureaux northern conference last week. Bureaux from northern England were meeting for their annual get together, under the cloud of impending cuts.

A potentially cataclysmic funding storm is brewing for the bureaux as they await the results of their tenders for civil legal aid contracts from the Legal Services Commission (LSC). Many of the bureaux currently undertake advice work in debt and welfare benefits under contracts with the LSC. Some of the larger ones also have contracts in other areas of work, for example, Gateshead Citizens Advice Bureau works in immigration, employment, benefits, debt and is looking to expand into family law. The results of the new tenders for the contracts, which commence in October, were due to be announced on the second day of the conference last Friday (9 July). However, the LSC seems to be in the midst of administrative meltdown and has had to delay advising bureaux whether they have a contract or not. This has left many on tenterhooks, fearing they will have to make staff redundant in the coming months and reduce their opening hours to the public.

Some managers and trustee board members gathering in York believe that up to 80 per cent of their funding could go in the next few months. One manger from a bureau in Lancashire told LAG that it could lose nearly £800,000 in contract cash by April next year, leaving it with less than £100,000 in funding. Like many, this bureau potentially faces losing its legal aid contracts as well as central government funding. Money given to Citizens Advice by the last government to help it cope with the extra work caused by the recession is due to run out by March 2011, as is cash from the Financial Inclusion Fund (FIF).

The FIF was established in 2006 by the previous government. The total fund allocated was £120m and it was intended to tackle debt and money problems through a combination of educating the public and advice. £45m of the fund has gone on frontline advice services paying for over 300 debt advisers in Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice agencies. According to Citizens Advice, over 70,000 people facing money problems have been helped by these FIF services. The new government, though, is staying tight-lipped on whether it will renew the grants.

The delegates might have been tempted to enlist the support of their fellow temporary residents at the University of York, as the Church of England Synod was meeting at the same time on campus. This made for an interesting juxtaposition of discussions on seemingly intractable problems.

Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, cut a careworn figure in a corner of the refectory at breakfast time last Friday. Around the refectory his bishops and other clergy were discussing a compromise deal over women bishops. Meanwhile, the Citizens Advice delegates, often sharing the same tables as the clergy, discussed legal aid contracts and the FIF. Perhaps they could at least draw comfort from the fact that one person in the room was facing seemingly greater problems than their own?

Despite the bleak outlook last week Rowan Williams managed to put together a compromise on women bishops earlier this week. Perhaps his success at crafting an agreement can give hope to his temporary cohabitees from last week? Hopefully, the funding problems which Citizens Advice Bureaux and other advice providers face will be resolved with government rather than divine intervention, although at times like this I am sure they are willing to accept any help they can get.

Steve Hynes

Image: York University Conference hall- Legal Action Group

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

Aspiring lawyers disappointed

LAG was disappointed to learn this afternoon that the Legal Services Commission (LSC) has decided not to go ahead with plans to sponsor training contracts for young legal aid lawyers. We believe this is a real kick in the teeth for many newly qualified or aspiring lawyers who want to pursue a career in legal aid work. The decision on the training grants had been delayed for over a year.

Over the years, the LSC has sponsored the training of 750 lawyers in legal aid firms and some Law Centres. The scheme gave them a chance of getting a foot on the career ladder and more importantly ensured the legal aid system recruited talented lawyers at the start of their careers, rather than letting them go off to pursue more lucrative careers in commercial law.

Laura Janes, chairperson of Young Legal Aid Lawyers, told LAG, 'This was promised by the last government. The minister even showed me the paperwork and said it was going to go ahead. It will be a bitter disappointment to many law students and newly qualified lawyers, as this was their last hope of a career in legal aid work.'

LAG appreciates times are hard in the world of legal aid. Cuts are looming. But surely £2 million could have been found out of the total budget of over £2 billion for the scheme? The sponsorship of training contracts by the LSC was widely supported by practitioners and was seen as one of the most positive things it did. A good quality legal aid system is dependent on recruiting and retaining the most able lawyers. LAG fears that firms will increasingly be reluctant to pay the wages of trainee lawyers and instead opt for unqualified staff to carry out legal aid work.