Preparing for your SQM audit
In the run up to the new crime contracts, some firms will be gearing up for a Specialist Quality Mark (SQM) audit. Vicky Ling shares her top tips.
The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) will accept either Lexcel or the SQM for the purposes of holding a contract. Lexcel has much to commend it, as it covers all work done, both privately and publicly funded, and is more closely aligned to the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) code of conduct. However, some providers doing what is generally considered ‘low risk’ work may want to stick with the SQM because it is familiar and may be considered less demanding.
The SQM sets out a range of requirements, and the assessor from the SQM Delivery Partnership (the consortium appointed by the LAA to conduct SQM audits) will expect to see evidence going back over the past 12 months.
A1 Requires a business plan and documented six-monthly reviews. The format of the plan is not prescribed, except for a SWOT analysis of the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to the practice, which is essential.
A2 This requires practitioners to provide up-to-date information for the GOV.UK website. This will be checked by the assessor prior to the site visit.
A3 Covers non-discrimination policy in the provision of services.
B1 Signposting and referral. Many people still have procedures devised by the now defunct Community Legal Service Partnerships. You do not need to keep any records of signposting, and referral is confined to ‘an established client … in a current matter’.
C1 Requires an up-to-date staff structure with responsibilities. The structure chart should agree with individual job descriptions.
C2 Annual budget; quarterly variance analysis; finance plan and reviews; audited/certified accounts; evidence of professional indemnity insurance.
D1 Job descriptions and person specifications for all staff. These are most useful if they are personal rather than generic. Appraisals provide an opportunity to review them and make sure they are current.
The most detailed change from the original 2002 SQM is the requirement in the current version for an equality and diversity policy that is in effective operation and available to all staff. There must also be an open recruitment process (see the definition in the SQM), and copies of assessment records for candidates must be kept for 12 months.
D2 Induction records for all staff. Annual appraisals must have taken place and the results of independent file reviews should be considered as part of appraisal. Everyone needs an individual training and development plan.
The SQM requires caseworkers and supervisors to have at least six hours’ training in each 12-month period in each category of law in which they work. The LAA prefers it to be SRA CPD-accredited training; but you may be able to justify other kinds (see D3.4 and D5.1).
D3 If a supervisor does not meet the LAA’s standards, the category is at risk of termination, although this would be a matter for the contract manager rather than the SQM Delivery Partnership. It is advisable for supervisors to fill out the appropriate selfdeclaration form and take on suitable cases as soon as possible if there are gaps (for those categories of law requiring a portfolio of cases).
D4 Supervisors need to be aware of their colleagues’ caseloads. People often worry about whether their supervision arrangements are acceptable. A very helpful list of activities is provided in the guidance to D4.2. Auditors are likely to be particularly keen to check that adequate support and guidance is provided to trainees and inexperienced staff.
E1 Current active file list. Reviewing this is a good opportunity for supervisors to spot potential problem files early on: for example, dormant files, which should be re-activated, or those that should be closed.
E2 File review. This is probably the least popular aspect of the standard. One way to make this easier is to fill out a file review form when a colleague comes to discuss an issue, or the supervisor provides advocacy on another’s case, rather than trying to set aside a particular time each month.
An annual review of records to identify trends is also required.
F1 Outset case management; confirming instructions, advice and action; name and status of caseworker; information on funding and how to complain in writing as soon as possible after the first meeting. LAA contract issues at the start of a case are important too: correct completion of forms, and obtaining evidence of means, although this is not an area the SQM Delivery Partnership assessor will examine, as it relates to the contract rather than the quality standard.
F2 Progress of the case: letters, phone calls and/or e-mails keeping the client informed will be expected.
F3 Case closure letters. These are often overlooked, but a final review provides a ‘last chance’ to correct any non-compliances on files.
F4 Confidentiality. This is not usually a problem in the office, but care needs to be exercised if files are taken to outreaches or to court, especially on public transport. When transmitting confidential information electronically, it should be encrypted or sent via secure e-mail such as the criminal justice secure e-mail system (CJSM).
F5 Approved counsel and experts. Reviewing the list of approved ‘others’ can be done at monthly team meetings and should be done before the audit to ensure the list is up to date.
G1 Complaints records and an annual review of complaints (see E2 above).
G2 Client feedback. This must be sought from at least 25 per cent of clients and an annual review must be carried out. Clients usually say very positive things, so do not forget to pass them on to the appropriate person. Records of annual reviews must be kept for three years.
G3 The quality representative. The secret is to appoint someone who likes systems and will keep everyone on the straight and narrow.
G4 You need to review the office manual every year.