Compliance rates by legal aid firms have improved, but ‘deep problems’ remain with some, one of the Legal Aid Agency’s (LAA) top brass warned.
John Sirodcar, head of contract management at the LAA said that compliance rates by legal aid firms had improved, evidenced by the fact that the number of contract notices issued last year had dropped and the number of contract sanctions fell by 50%.
In a question and answer session at the Legal Aid Practitioners’ Group conference, Sirodcar told delegates ‘the numbers suggest that you are more compliant’.
But, he said there are a number of firms ‘we have deep problems with’ that need to become compliant or exit the market.
Sirodcar showed some empathy with firms who have been struggling in the face of the erosion of legal aid. He said: ‘I wouldn’t hide the fact that these are pretty tough times to be in the pubic sector and to be running contracts in the public sector. I wouldn’t deny that at all.’
The LAA were told that some of their staff lacked a correct understanding of the law when it came to making funding decisions and that where firms complained, there was a perception that the LAA made life harder for them.
Jane Harbottle, head of civil legal aid, said that the LAA had experienced a 15% reduction in its staff base, but said that training had been put in place and that lawyers should see improvement in its performance.
The staff cuts, she said, had reinforced the need for the LAA to simplify its processes for everyone’s benefit, including reviewing its standard letters sent to firms, one of which she said is currently 14 pages long.
Opening the conference, LAPG co-chair Nicola Mackintosh, warned that the years of cuts to legal aid meant that ‘the justice system is now broken’. She said there is an urgent need for change.
Despite the barriers to the justice system put up by court fees, court closures and personal injury reforms, Christina Blacklaws, vice president of the Law Society, said she saw ‘green shoots’ and signs that the tide was turning in favour of improving access to justice, following the publication of the Bach Commission report and positive noises by senior politicians at the Conservative party conference.
Commission chair, Lord Bach, said he hoped there would be a shift in thinking to address the report’s conclusion that there is a ‘crisis’ in access in access to justice.
Andrew Walker QC, vice chairman of the Bar Council, was more circumspect. He told delegates that the Ministry of Justice had little clout when it came to spending decisions in Whitehall. ‘The big-spending departments call the shots,’ he said.
‘With a heavy heart,’ he said: ‘There is a long way to go to get justice up the financial ladder.’
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