Call to set up LSC watchdog

Solicitors have called for the creation of a watchdog to oversee the Legal Services Commission (LSC) amid accusations that law firms are cheating its audit process.

The attack came at a Legal Action Group (LAG) conference last week.

Speakers argued that the LSC has too many fingers in too many pies, and that the only way it could be properly accountable were if a legal aid inspectorate was set up to monitor it.

LAG director Karen Mackay said: For a body that has responsibility for a budget of well over 1.6 billion and for a complex new system of contracts, quality marks, regional planning, as well as the day-to-day administration of legal aid, it seems inadequate that there is no independent scrutiny of its operation.Jane Hickman, a partner at high-profile London legal aid firm Hickman & Rose, poured fuel on the fire by criticising the LSCs quality assessment, which is based on audits of firms management structures.

Ms Hickman said she had spoken to several solicitors who had been given the opportunity to doctor files prior to audit.

If the LSC auditors are telling firms which files they are going to be looking at a month in advance, cheating is going to happen it is only human nature, she argued.

Steve Orchard, the LSCs chief executive, admitted later that it was possible for firms to meddle with files.

Because it takes time to take them out of storage, we do give firms notice, he explained.

But he said this was the exception rather than the rule, and that if the LSC had concerns about a firm, no notice would be given before an audit was imposed.

In his keynote speech, David Lock, parliamentary secretary to the Lord Chancellors Department, praised the success of the system of contracts and welcomed the Criminal Defence Service.

We now have a comprehensive network of legal service providers working together to ensure that people have greater access to good quality, local legal advice, he declared.

Paula Rohan