Advice on discrimination, education and debt cases has only been available through the mandatory telephone gateway since the implementation in 2013 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO). Suppliers bidding for CLA contracts are expected to submit bids based on price. Legal Action understands that contract-holders are undertaking the work at a rate of around £30 per hour or less. The specialist practitioners we spoke to about the tenders believe this is too low to provide a good-quality service.
Most of education law has been cut from the scope of legal aid, but special educational needs (SEN) cases remain, together with education disability discrimination. SEN cases make up the bulk of work undertaken by the CLA specialist education law providers.
Beverley Watkins, managing partner of Bristol-based Watkins Solicitors, is an education law specialist who dropped out of legal aid work after the changes introduced by LASPO. She told Legal Action that ‘the tender process has been developed by people who do not understand SEN work’. Watkins believes it is impossible to undertake this type of specialist work for a very low hourly rate, though a current CLA provider who Legal Action spoke to argued that it is feasible to provide a good-quality casework service remotely in SEN cases, but they would not confirm the details of the hourly rates they are being paid.
Watkins said most SEN casework is carried out under the legal help scheme and though the majority falls into the exceptional cases category, there is a significant delay in providers receiving payment. Under the legal help scheme, providers have to wait until the end of the case before being paid. Many cases last more than 12 months, and some carry on over several years; Watkins still has three cases that commenced before March 2013.
According to Watkins, in most SEN cases, independent expert reports have to be obtained, which can cost several thousands of pounds. For parents, she explained, it is not just independent legal advice they seek, but also help with obtaining these expensive reports. ‘Increasingly, families are at breaking point,’ she said, because they cannot get legal help for children with SEN unless they can afford to pay privately.
Legal Action asked the LAA what it intends to do to ensure services continue in these areas of law. It said it could not discuss this, but would make a public announcement ‘soon’.