Legal aid compliance (Feb 20)
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Marc Bloomfield
Controlled work remains vulnerable to audit as it is paper-based, and therefore easy for human error to creep in.
The most frequent type of legal aid ‘audit’ is a contract manager visit. Each organisation is visited annually, the focus is on contractual compliance, and files are sampled in each category at least annually (dependent on any issues identified). The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) told the Civil Contracts Consultative Group that there were 3,418 visits in 2018/19, to 76.9 per cent of schedule holders. The main issues are:
Poor form completion
Consider using the LAA’s online eligibility checker. When you have completed it, you can select ‘print CW1’ and a fully completed form will be printed for your client to sign. There was a problem with the software until the issue was taken up by the Legal Aid Practitioners Group towards the end of 2019, but it was working well at the time of writing, so if you have previously been discouraged from using it, it is definitely worth going back for another look.
Lack of, or invalid, evidence of means
The guidance to use when deciding whether evidence of means is valid is the Guide to determining financial eligibility for controlled work and family mediation April 2019.
Lack of valid evidence of domestic abuse
If you need evidence of domestic abuse in a family matter, you should use the LAA’s guidance booklet, The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 – evidence requirements for private family law matters (8 January 2018). It contains the regulations themselves and a detailed list of the acceptable evidence.
Guide to preventing audit issues
The most common reasons for contract notices being served to civil/family contract holders were:
means assessment;
incorrect claim codes;
failing a first peer review; and
disbursements.
Take note of advice concerning which CWA codes can be combined, as trying to use incompatible codes is usually the root of most problems.
The LAA has published a guide to the most common errors it has found, and how they can be avoided: Preventing audit issues (16 June 2016). It has also issued guidance on CWA claim codes, which can be confusing and can take some thinking through. Take note of advice concerning which codes can be combined, as trying to use incompatible codes is usually the root of most problems.
The peer reviewers have provided Improving your quality guides to what they are looking for, in the most popular contract categories.
Tips for assessing means
When completing a legal help form, don’t worry that universal credit is not listed with the other passporting benefits under Part C: Income at the top of page 6. It is a passporting benefit as confirmed by the Keycard.1Keycard 55, LAA, April 2019. If your client is on universal credit, it is okay to tick the box.
Don’t forget to prompt your client about different types of capital. People may not think of things like building society or savings accounts as ‘capital’, and some valuable items also count.
Look at bank statements in the same way that the LAA will – if there are payments in from other accounts or sources such as PayPal, they will need to be explained. This is particularly important if the payment was a one-off, as the LAA will assume a payment is going to be the same every month unless it is told otherwise.
If there is a one-off payment that would make your client ineligible if it were to be counted as income (eg, a loan from a family member), it may be more appropriate to treat that as capital.
If your client is ineligible this month due to fluctuating income but would be eligible next month, it is okay for them to reapply when they would be eligible.
If your client is being supported by a family member or a friend, there is a form that they can complete (Third Party Financial Support Evidence Pro-forma). It is not mandatory, but it covers all the LAA’s criteria, so it is a good idea to use it.
If your client is on a passporting benefit but does not have documentary evidence, you can send a form (DWP Written Confirmation of Means Evidence) to the Department for Work and Pensions or use a different form to record a telephone call with the department. Neither is mandatory, but they cover all the LAA’s criteria, so using them is recommended.
 
1     Keycard 55, LAA, April 2019. »

About the author(s)

Description: Vicky Ling - author
Vicky Ling is a consultant specialising in legal aid practice and a founder member of the Law Consultancy Network.