Looking at some COVID-19 contract changes that have become permanent.
The face-to-face contracts held by most practitioners are designed around the traditional model of clients visiting their solicitors in person. However, there are provisions to allow more flexible methods of delivery. They can be very useful if you are contacted by a potential client who would find it difficult to come to your office for any reason, such as the cost of travel, childcare issues or because they cannot find another provider able to take their case.
During the COVID-19 contingency period, the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) increased to 50 per cent the controlled work matter starts that can be delivered using remote methods of communication, without seeing the client. You may send the application form to your client, after you have given the advice, for signature and return. The key conditions are:1See the 2018 Standard Civil Contract Specification paras 3.18–3.20.
•The client requests remote advice and traditional face-to-face advice is offered.
•It is not necessary for the interests of the client or their case to attend in person.
•The client meets the criteria in the Civil Legal Aid (Merits Criteria) Regulations 2013 SI No 104 and the Civil Legal Aid (Financial Resources and Payment for Services) Regulations 2013 SI No 480 for the provision of legal help.
•The client subsequently signs the application form and provides appropriate evidence in relation to their financial means and identity.
•No payment will be made if the client fails to sign and return the application form, so any work you do before you receive a signed form is at your risk.
Where you accept a remote application to comply with your duties under the Equality Act 2010, this does not count towards the 50 per cent limit.22018 Standard Civil Contract Specification para 3.17.
The contract allows you to exceed the 50 per cent threshold if you obtain advance written authority from the LAA. If you believe you will exceed the 50 per cent threshold, you should request written authority from your contract manager setting out the reasons why. Reasons may include, for example:
•any ongoing COVID-19 restrictions;
•the health circumstances of individual fee-earners;
•a change in the way that work is dealt with, eg, a general change to remote working; and/or
•client choice – clients must always have the option of face-to-face advice.
There are no contractual limits on remote working for licensed work.
Changes to supervision requirements
The LAA introduced amendments to the contract that took effect from 1 November 2021.5See the 2018 Standard Civil Contract Specification.
One recognises that supervisors may work away from their named office and is more flexible than the previous wording (amended wording in bold):
2.10 … Supervisors must at all times during their working hours (except as required for the proper performance of their role such as attending court and/or clients) be accessible to those they supervise.
The other clarifies that if a supervisor provides remote supervision, they must attend the office at the same time as those they supervise at least one day a month (amended wording in bold):
2.21 Arrangements must be in place to ensure that each Supervisor is able to conduct their role effectively including but not limited to:
(a)designating time to conduct supervision of each Caseworker;
(b)designating at least one day per calendar month to be in attendance at each Office at which they supervise staff (which must coincide with attendance by staff supervised); and
(c)ensuring that the level of supervision provided reflects the skills, knowledge and experience of the individual Caseworker.
Practitioners should ensure that they are able to produce evidence of face-to-face supervision at least once a month in case this is checked by their contract manager. Evidence could include meetings recorded in both people’s diaries, emails arranging meetings and confirming any follow-up, attendance notes on files confirming action to be taken as a result of supervision, and/or notes made during or immediately after meetings (although there is no contractual, SQM or Lexcel requirement to keep notes of supervision).