Legal aid lawyers have shown the new Legal Aid Agency chief that they won’t give him an easy ride
The past few Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG) conferences were graced with the presence of Hugh Barrett, then head of commissioning at the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). His chief role in the conference proceedings was to field questions from angry legal aid lawyers and – notoriously – to win a prize in the raffle. It was all change this year.
Barrett left the LAA in the summer (see October 2016 Legal Action 4) and Shaun McNally (pictured), the agency’s relatively new CEO, took over his role occupying the hot seat at this year’s conference, which took place on 7 October.
McNally’s appointment was welcomed by many in the world of legal aid, including the vice-president of the Law Society, Joe Egan. He told the conference that he believes McNally ‘gives a much better impression than that of his predecessor, Matthew Coats’, who, he said, had appeared to be indifferent to legal aid.
Coats did not attend the LAPG conferences, preferring instead to send Barrett, who sometimes gave the impression that he’d never allowed his mind to become contaminated by any detailed knowledge of the law or the administrative processes at the LAA. In his defence, he had not previously worked in a law-related service until joining the then Legal Services Commission in December 2008. In contrast, McNally has worked his way up the Ministry of Justice corporate ladder, moving from the Courts Service in October 2012 to take charge of case management at the LAA.
His background in senior roles in the Courts Service gives him a head start in terms of credibility among legal aid practitioners and he did come across as someone who is genuinely committed to what he does, describing himself ‘as happy as a pig in muck to be working for the LAA’.
‘If the 8.75 per cent cut for criminal legal aid comes in, it will not be viable for my firm to continue in legal aid work.’
In a question-and-answer session, he faced a number of queries about the LAA’s controversial digital case management system, CCMS. In her remarks opening the conference, Nicola Mackintosh (pictured), LAPG’s co-chair, had said that the system ‘was not working’. LAPG members also complained to McNally that the decision-making process on granting legal aid had been further complicated by the introduction of CCMS and that it was causing delays in processing applications. In his speech, McNally had said that he knew there were ‘issues with CCMS’ and that the LAA was ‘committed to working with you to resolve these’.
Egan (pictured), who is expected to become Law Society president next year, described his experience of running a legal aid firm for the past 30 years and warned: ‘The reality is that if the 8.75 per cent, currently suspended, cut for criminal legal aid comes in, it will not be viable for my firm to continue in legal aid work.’ Speaking from the floor, barrister Alex Offer summed up the mood for many attendees when he accused the LAA of working ‘as a financial gatekeeper, only willing to throw resources at restricting access to justice’. In response McNally said cost was ‘not the determinative factor’ in making decisions on legal aid.
The LAA’s new CEO seems willing to listen to practitioners’ concerns, but legal aid is constrained by government policy. In his speech, McNally detailed how the agency had been forced to find 34 per cent in cuts to its administrative costs over the past five years and added that he would have to find a further £11m in cuts over the next four. Unless the government can be persuaded otherwise, the bleak truth is that McNally’s main task at the LAA will be to continue to preside over a regime of financial constraints in which access to justice plays second fiddle. ■