So I set off to visit the Agency in Nottingham. I turned up early, waiting to see if the removal vans were pulling up outside to spirit away all the live files to hide them until I’d gone. They weren’t there. I watched to see lots of extra staff, employed for the day to smile and look very busy as I was shown around. No sign of them. Equally there was no sign of the bonfire or whirr of the shredder. Is it a communal delusion?
No, it is a genuine problem of communication.
The Agency also operates in a state of anxiety. They are very concerned by figures and targets. They are extremely sensitive about the level of criticism.
I was shown around the entire office, I was introduced to the staff who actually process the claims. I was shown a number of claims. It was very interesting to see the different standards between the forms and it occurred to me that I had never before seen how anyone else completed the forms. That was very informative.
The files I was shown had been specially selected to demonstrate a cross-section. They ranged from good, to average, to bad and on to the awful. Genuinely awful.
According to the lady I spoke to the genuinely awful category is very small but incredibly time consuming. It takes up staff time, which is very limited. The longer spent on that sort of claim the less they have to process the good ones. Accordingly there does come a point when some have to be thrown back. One I saw had a mixture of incorrect and no dates for hearings. So the next step is to see if the gaps can be filled in from the records provided by the different systems at court. Xhibit is the first port of call. If counsel hasn’t logged on for the day, that’s a dead end. Then on to the system completed by the court clerk. “Defence counsel then addressed the court on bail.” No name. Another dead end.
If it’s a day in the course of a trial and there is only one counsel representing one defendant then it is a safe assumption that it’s the same person and it should be paid on that basis. If it’s a preliminary hearing or a multi-handed case or two counsel, it cannot be paid on an assumption. It has to go back.
They have target numbers that they are expected to get through in a day. Sending claims back means they do not reach their targets. Processing and paying a claim is quicker and therefore less costly in terms of staff time to the agency. There is no benefit to them to push this month’s payments into next month’s run. It all still has to be paid. They do not have cash-flow problems!
There are many imperfections in the system. The “instructed advocate” scheme does not work well in practice and it must be reviewed. Travel expenses are paid on a Google shot of time taken, which is often unreliable or just wrong. The representation order should be on a shared file. The list goes on.
I am not an apologist for the Agency. It wasn’t a royal visit accompanied by the smell of fresh paint but they were, of course, bound to be showing their best face to outside inspection.
They are stretched; they have had to do more with less. But it does not work to their advantage to delay payment and it can only make their job more difficult to find pointless reasons to reject a claim. We are discussing some form of interim payments with the MoJ but in the meantime...
There is a check list. There are accompanying documents that are essential to complete a form. We have much to complain about but until I can say that every time I send a claim I have completed it properly my paranoia is misplaced. Or is it?
Maura McGowan QC is Chairman of the Bar
The Legal Aid Agency is a commissioning and payment organisation. We pay legal practitioners to provide important legal services. But we also put in place checks to ensure payments are correctly made and taxpayers’ money spent efficiently.
Of course, we recognise these are challenging times and the importance of paying your bills on time. We are working hard to build understanding of how we tackle the issues you face through dialogue, listening to concerns, and gathering ideas for improving the way we work.
Our priorities in the coming months are to ensure that we continue to make improvements in the way we manage our casework. This will help to deliver a better service to everyone who carries out legal aid work. We are also committed to continuing to develop positive relations.
To this end my managers and staff are making every effort to work with the Bar and we are encouraged by the positive response we’ve received. For my part, I meet with senior figures such as the Chairman of the Bar, Maura McGowan QC, and I’m pleased that she recently visited our processing centre in Nottingham to see our operations first hand. But such engagement is really just the tip of the iceberg.
In recent years we have expanded our contract management team who play an important role in ensuring barristers are kept informed and supported. Most chambers carrying out legal aid work now have a direct point of contact with a contract manager. So they can pick up the phone or send an email to someone who understands their issues at any time.
We have also worked with the wider Bar Council and circuit leaders, running events for barristers and clerks in each circuit as well as hosting a number of visits to our processing centres. These meetings provided an opportunity to hear about our plans for the future, to broaden the understanding of our operational processes and to question and challenge our senior managers. More recently, we have delivered face-to-face and web-based training on how to submit claims for family work. Events and training of this kind are designed to help barristers. So we urge those carrying out legal aid work to attend whenever possible.
Processing payment claims is central to our work and we continue to focus on improving our customer service and turnaround times. All businesses depend on properly managed cash flow and we recognise it’s important for us to provide a prompt and accurate service.
There are a lot of misconceptions about our performance in this area. We will always investigate suggestions that we have not paid you promptly but we do have to ensure the correct processes are followed. Also, there will inevitably be negotiations about the small number of high cost cases we fund because of the level of scrutiny that is required.
We are meeting our service standards for processing applications and paying bills but recognise we need to keep making improvements. Over the next couple of years, we want to process applications within a maximum of two weeks and pay bills within four weeks.
In addition, many of our services are being digitised. This means new, online ways of working will ultimately improve checks and reduce margins of error. A large proportion of transactions are now handled this way and we are looking to transfer even more work online as soon as possible.
We recognise there is a lot of frustration about rejected applications. So, we are working hard in partnership with representative bodies and practitioners to address this. For example, we have published claim checklists on the Justice website for all our civil claim forms.
These checklists highlight common errors and help ensure claim forms are accurately completed, preventing claim resubmissions which ultimately delay payments. If anyone is experiencing difficulties with claims, I would urge them to talk to their Bar contract manager.
Useful updates on operational and processing changes can also be obtained by signing up to the Legal Aid Bulletin and Advocates’ Bulletin. These email Bulletins are sent out fortnightly and monthly respectively. They link to news stories on the Justice website, allowing you to pick and choose news that is relevant to you.
I am mindful these are hard times for everyone. As a government agency, we have to show we get value for every pound we spend. We will continue to look for savings and ways of reducing our administration budget.
I think we all recognise the legal aid market has faced significant challenges over the last few years. However, there is now much more openness and dialogue with the Bar Council, barristers and other key stakeholders. This allows us to deal with issues collectively. Our commitment to open relations will remain and I feel confident we can tackle the challenges ahead in a positive way.
Matthew Coats is Chief Executive of the Legal Aid Agency