It is easy to get lost in the Legal Aid Agency’s attempts to assist practitioners. Vicky Ling points you in the right direction.
One of the challenges of the pandemic is that the situation changes constantly. The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has announced a series of concessions and special arrangements since March 2020. At the end of July, it announced that its COVID-19 response arrangements would be extended to 30 September 2020, with some exceptions for processes that would be restarting. The LAA also confirmed that it would give three weeks’ notice of any changes.
There are specific web pages that provide a lot more detail than we can include here and are well worth checking out:
SQM audits to restart – remote, blended or full on-site audit, as appropriate. Lexcel assessments are being conducted using the same methodology.
•Contract management and assurance activity resumed, including selecting and reviewing files digitally wherever possible and completing areas of work that have been paused.
•Contract managers will discuss the impact COVID-19 has had on your organisation, any changes you have put in place and plans. They will also be sharing performance data. They will be conducting ‘annual visits’ where appropriate and address areas of concern.
•Peer review will focus on completing reviews that have already started and higher-risk areas, eg, second reviews where a provider had an initial below competence result.
•Contract managers contacting firms to review performance data and understand how COVID-19 has impacted on the provider.
•The LAA restarted client debt recovery contact to make people aware of their existing debts and the options available to them. Engagement with providers regarding organisational debt remains on hold.
•Core testing resumed. This is where the LAA reviews cases on behalf of the National Audit Office to understand the level of error for claims and applications in the work of both the LAA and providers. Where possible, it will collect this information without asking for files.
The LAA expanded its advice on obtaining signatures from clients, which may be by electronic means, including email confirmation that the client understands the implications of accepting legal aid. However, it expects you to get a ‘wet’ signature where possible at any point.4Coronavirus (COVID-19): working with clients.
The LAA relaxed the time limit for controlled work claims.5Coronavirus (COVID-19): processing and payments.
The compulsory telephone gateway to legal aid for discrimination, education and debt was removed.7Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2020 SI No 439.
It was no longer compulsory to attend a mediator’s office in person.8Civil Legal Aid (Procedure) (Amendment) Regulations 2020.
Information provided on billing for cases held using HM Courts & Tribunals Service video remand hearings.9Coronavirus (COVID-19): remote working.
Acceptable evidence was expanded to make it easier for victims of domestic and child abuse to access legal aid:10The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 – evidence requirements for private family law matters, version 10, 15 May 2020; last review date 9 April 2020.
removing the need for evidence to be submitted on letter headed paper; allowing additional evidence types to be submitted via email; and allowing solicitors to provide an email documenting that they have spoken to a member of the police and received confirmation that the perpetrator received a caution for a domestic violence/child abuse offence or that the perpetrator is involved in ongoing criminal proceedings relating to a domestic abuse/child abuse offence.
The LAA suspended time limits for delegated function applications, substantive amendments and appeals against LAA decisions.11Coronavirus (COVID-19): processing and payments.
The LAA published guidance on what can be claimed for family hearings, mental health tribunals and police station attendances.13Coronavirus (COVID-19): remote working.