In a welcome investigation, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman has made a finding against the Legal Aid Agency
(LAA) of maladministration by way of acting unreasonably and in a way that denied Law Centre clients access to justice. The ombudsman detailed how lengthy LAA delays and conflicting procedures left three vulnerable EU citizens living in the UK, who were about to be deported for sleeping rough, excluded from the justice system and unable to challenge deportation orders against them. The LAA had failed to provide legal aid funding in a fair and timely way.
The unnamed Law Centre made a complaint to the ombudsman after first receiving a refusal on the application for legal aid and subsequently facing delays. As the work was urgent, the Law Centre had to fund the legal challenge to the deportation orders itself, at its own financial risk. When the LAA eventually granted funding, it did so from the date of its decision rather than the date of the original application. If the Law Centre had not acted ‘at risk’, its clients would not have been able to make a timely application, which ultimately was successful.
The ombudsman recommended that the LAA apologise to the Law Centre, pay the costs the Law Centre was unable to recoup and review its processes to make sure they provide fair outcomes for all.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said
We welcome the ombudsman’s finding of maladministration by the [LAA]. This is not an isolated incident: many Law Centres and other legal aid providers face delayed decisions by LAA. In some cases, we as a membership body are called upon to help get the Law Centre clarity with mere hours before a case is due to be heard in court.
In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA and have nothing to do with protecting the public purse. In effect, it restricts access to legal aid, making it harder for lawyers to launch legal action with confidence and for people to resolve their legal problems. The result is that it piles pressure on legal aid providers. All this runs against the very purpose of the [LAA]. We call on them to fix it now.