wendy-hewstone

A message to MPs, please stop telling us we don’t do enough pro bono

Pro bono? Restrictive Legal Aid Agency rules means we have no choice but to act for free sometimes, says Wendy Hewston

Legal aid lawyers are used to reading unflattering or inaccurate reports about themselves in the press, but there were three stories this week that particularly resonated with me.

First, there was the story of Mark Saunders, the solicitor in Newcastle upon Tyne struck off for putting the wrong dates on payment claims made to the Legal Aid Agency. There was no suggestion he hadn’t quite properly done the work claimed for, just that he hadn’t sent in the bills within the three-month period specified by the LAA. Rather than write them off, Mr Saunders, a solicitor with over 20 years experience, sent the claims in late and falsified the date of the work, to hide the delay. When the deception was uncovered (thanks to an apparently disgruntled office manager who had previously been sacked), Saunders didn’t own up, but gave inaccurate explanations to the LAA about the late claims.

As one online commentator said:

‘Mark Saunders is a thoroughly decent man, highly regarded throughout the legal profession in the north east. Almost to a man and woman, they are appalled that he has been struck off.  ‘If he had been a plumber, he would have had six years to recover his money. The government has an arbitrary three month time limit for claiming fees, no doubt in the hope that people will fail to do so and it reaps the windfall.
There are very few who have not at some time and in some way done similar. Saunders is the unlucky one who has been caught out. There but for the grace of god go many others.’

Amen to that.

Then, there was the story of Alex Chalk MP saying we should do more pro bono work.

Chalk called for pro bono ‘to be embedded in the DNA of the Bar and solicitor professions’. ‘It ought to have a profile right from the moment people consider embarking upon this career because it is a vitally important part of what it is to be a modern lawyer.’

Well, pro bono is pretty firmly embedded in the DNA of most legal aid firms, whether they want it to be or not. I am sure we are not alone in not being able to bill cases when, due to pressure of work and having to deal with clients with urgent cases, we have been late submitting bills. In the post LASPO world, who has the resources to employ huge teams of support staff ensuring the bills are claimed in time? Obviously, we cannot alter dates as Mark Saunders did, so there are cases where we have done the work and helped the client but not claimed any costs from the Legal Aid Agency.

When we had an audit in 2015, we had a recoupment, as we made some claims late. At that time, we had kept cases open longer than we should because we knew if we closed the legal help down, the clients would never qualify for legal help again as they would not pass the domestic violence gateway tests.

Then I was working at home this week with the TV in the background when I nearly choked on my tea hearing a McKenzie friend on BBC TV saying she charged £45 an hour.

This is for an unqualified and uninsured advisor. Due to legal aid fixed fees, we often receive less than that overall when the case is paid, if the client actually manages to qualify for legal aid in the first place and we have the strength to spend hours applying online through the LAA’s Client and Cost Management System

So please MPs, never dare tell legal aid lawyers we are not doing enough pro bono work.

 

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