By Legal Futures Associate Quill
Legal aid is, necessarily, always changing, governed as it is by parliament and the commitment to access to justice for disadvantaged people. Keeping up with these changes is no small challenge. That’s why we quizzed legal aid gurus DG Legal Consultant, Steve Keeling, and DG Legal Director, David Gilmore, so that law firms can understand what’s changed these past months in order to fully comply with their Legal Aid Agency (LAA) obligations.
The eligibility criteria for civil legal aid has changed. What are these changes and how do they apply to individuals seeking legal aid funding?
As part of means testing, existing compensation schemes will be either disregarded entirely or a discretionary approach applied. Individuals will not, therefore, automatically fail the eligibility criteria with such payments being deemed income or capital, as previously. The mortgage cap has been removed too. The full mortgage debt will be deducted from a property’s value. Again, this means that more people will pass the eligibility criteria.
Furthermore, in May 2021, the Means Assessment Guidance was updated to include ‘breathing space’ in relation to the Debt Respite Scheme (Appendix 13). There are two types of moratoriums under the scheme:
1) A standard breathing space moratorium (which will give an individual legal protection from their creditors for 60 days); or
2) A mental health crisis moratorium (which potentially will see a longer moratorium period provided for individuals in receipt of mental health crisis treatment).
Describe the civil application fixer service and how it applies to legal aid work
This service is new. It’s essentially for law firms to question potential mistakes made by the LAA in processing applications or performing means tests. Its aim is to reduce the number of appeals.
Further details can be found here.
What’s the outcome of the consultation on the proposal for a permanent transfer of assessment rights from the courts to the LAA?
Law firms can now choose whether civil or family claims are assessed at court or by the LAA, thus removing the need for all claims to go before the courts, as before.
Find out more here.
In April 2020, the LAA issued instructions on contingency arrangements relating to law firms’ presence requirements and supervision. Is this still relevant now?
As we continue to live with COVID-19 restrictions, albeit on the roadmap back to normality, the LAA has been checking that legal aid providers comply with their contractual obligations in this area. As such, the LAA has introduced new temporary standards which are an acceptable alternative for compliance. Compliance with these contingency measures is subject to the written agreement of the law firm in question’s LAA contract manager.
The announcement is here.
Current civil contracts have been extended to 31st August 2022. What action should law firms take?
In a word, nothing. If law firms hold a current civil contract and accept the extension, there’s no need to respond. The new schedules will simply be uploaded in July 2021.
What are the amendments to standard crime contracts which came into effect on 7th June 2021?
Primarily, these changes are the addition of new payment fees covering work completed for pre-charge engagement activity. These fees remunerate solicitors who act on behalf of suspects engaged in the pre-charge process – that’s after the first police interview and before the suspect has been formally charged. An hourly rate applies with an upper cost limit of £273.75. Disbursements can also be claimed, excluding travel and waiting time.
Another substantive change is about all prescribed proceedings now being subject to an upper limit, not only those in the Crown Court, unless they’re in the magistrates’ court. There’s clarification, too, on the position of the court duty solicitor in that clients may be represented in a sending hearing but it should form part of the court duty claim.
A summary of these amendments is available here.
Are there training materials available for law firms to get to grips with particular aspects of legal aid procedures?
Yes, and new modules have recently been added to the LAA’s online legal aid learning portal covering topics ranging from crime applications to national crime team training.
Head to Legal Aid Learning to see what’s on offer.
Parting words from Quill’s Managing Director, Julian Bryan, from a software perspective.
Quill’s one of the few software suppliers that actively supports law firms providing legal aid-funded services. All newly introduced legal aid fees, such as the pre-charge engagement fee for criminal work referenced above, are implemented in our software well ahead of deadline. Take a look at our legal accounts and case management software to discover how its features assist legal aid practitioners in their daily work, from billing to matter management.
“Before the pandemic, we were still paper-file oriented. This was in large part due to our legal aid work as the LAA demanded the entire paper file. When Covid hit, the LAA sent everyone home along with the rest of us and immediately cut back requirements so that they only want to see timesheets. We upload this data directly from Quill to the LAA’s online portal. While the LAA will ramp things up again in future, as they want to see attendance notes for work over sixty minutes, it’s contributed to our paperless quest.” Andrew Guile, Partner, GN Law
To get in touch with David, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Read about Quill’s complete practice management software at www.quill.co.uk/legal-software. Alternatively, call 0161 236 2910 or email email@example.com.