“Some organisations have approached me about going back into housing law. Would I go back? Could I go back?”
So – my last article as director of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group (LAPG). What should it be about? A tub-thumping address to the lord chancellor about the need for a massive increase in funding? An address to the chief executive of the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), Shaun McNally, about cutting out bureaucracy? A history of CCMS (the client and cost management system), an online application and billing system that has made otherwise mild-mannered people tear their hair out in frustration?
Writing to the lord chancellor and venting my rage about underfunding would make me feel better but I doubt it would do any good. The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is carrying out its review
of the post-LASPO world. The review has been thorough and the people carrying it out have been impressive. LAPG has put considerable resources into the review and we have no doubt that the civil servants are aware of the main issues. Whether they will be addressed or not depends on the response of the ministers. In David Gauke and Lucy Frazer QC we have perhaps the most sensible team in recent years, and they understand the damage that the changes have caused.
It would undoubtedly be popular if I wrote on behalf of the profession about how bureaucracy stifles clients’ cases, demoralises practitioners and causes the LAA unnecessary work. It is, however, more fruitful to put resources into operational meetings, working constructively with LAA staff to identify problems and to work out better ways of dealing with some of the bureaucracy. The Law Society, LAPG and Resolution have been doing this over the past few years.
CCMS would be a good cause to bow out on. I remember saying to Shaun McNally a couple of years ago that I have been to too many meetings over too many years about CCMS and its precursors. I suspect he shared that view.
And what about the frustration of contract bid rounds? In the last civil round, over 50 organisations contacted the LAPG office, with some practitioners distraught, fearing that they would not be awarded a contract. My colleague Chris Minnoch and I worked through all the problems and gradually everyone emerged with their contracts.
So what big issue should I end with? How about setting up a legal aid think tank? How can we tackle the sector’s lack of social mobility? But then I realised that the best way to end was with a very heartfelt plea on something where I believe progress could be made.
Since announcing that I am leaving LAPG, some organisations have approached me about going back into housing law. Would I go back? Could I go back? And that’s what struck me – absolutely not. Why not? At LAPG, we receive a lot of feedback about what is going wrong with the legal aid system. It is hard enough for lawyers seeing so many clients in crisis. It is stressful turning away so many desperate people. Stress permeates teams – from partners and managers through to junior lawyers and support staff.
I would love to become a lawyer again, seeing clients, analysing cases, advising where there is no case and litigating where a recalcitrant landlord has failed to comply with its duties. Emergency cases hold no fear – when I worked at Shelter we did numerous urgent injunction cases. I miss the Bow County Court duty scheme – my record being 16 clients in one afternoon. I would happily go back to the coalface.
What I cannot face is the work generated by contracts and their interpretation. Calculating financial eligibility and not getting paid if you get it wrong. Months of delays while finances are checked. Sending clients away to return with more information. Processing work on CCMS. Dealing with all the knock-backs when the LAA refuses a certificate or reduces costs at the end of the case. I listen to experienced practitioners and they are often demoralised, weary or apoplectic. Sara Stephens, a partner at Anthony Gold, told me: ‘When a homeless mum with young children calls me at 4 pm as the local authority have gate-kept her homelessness application and she has nowhere to sleep that night, I want my first thought not to be, “Do I have the time and resources to get the CCMS application sorted?”’ I cannot think of any housing practitioner who says that the system is fine and they are happy with the LAA’s approach to casework or billing.
So here is the idea for the MoJ: rethink contracts. Take an area of law like housing and model what you could do to make it possible to deliver a service to clients. I would suggest that the design is relatively simple and may well remind people of an earlier scheme.
A great first step: allow legal aid funding for early advice in housing, at the very least for cases that could lead to eviction and homelessness. Discuss with experts like HLPA (the Housing Law Practitioners Association), LAPG and the Law Society what a sensible model would look like. If there was a contract, could you make it as simple as possible? For example, cut out the supervisor standard in its current form – it is out of date and there is no oversupply of supervisors. Rethink what you need from a supervisor and have a list with more flexibility. Value experience over an anachronistic checklist of cases.
Give more discretion to practitioners. Place more responsibility with the compliance officer for legal practice (COLP) and the housing supervisor. Concentrate on access, quality, expertise and client outcomes, rather than compliance. Allow certificates to be granted by the practitioner, signed off by the supervisor or COLP.
In return for greater flexibility, organisations would be audited more consistently. Audits could take place with no notice. LAA staff currently doing processing work could be moved to audit work. Less nit-picking. More access to justice for clients. More flexibility for practitioners and less hassle for LAA staff.
Carol stepped down as LAPG director on 20 November. She is going to spend six months volunteering for various organisations, including LAG, of which she is vice-chair. Legal Action would like to thank her for her many interesting and thought-provoking columns over the years.