Hundreds of practitioners have aired their views on the Legal Aid Agency's decision-making as part of wider efforts to understand a 'serious disconnect' between senior civil servants and the profession.
The Legal Aid Practitioners Group says it has received over 400 responses to its survey, which closes next week. Chief executive Chris Minnoch told the Gazette the group decided to survey members after being inundated with examples of reportedly poor decision-making by the agency.
He said: 'From the examples given to us by members, we’re concerned that LAA caseworkers don’t appear to understand their own rules, make arbitrary or unlawful decisions, sometimes don’t act unless threatened with judicial review, make inconsistent decisions on the same set of facts, and the appeal processes don’t appear to be operating properly.
'Of course members only tend to contact us when things have gone wrong, so we needed to get a better understanding of the range and extent of the problems.'
Earlier this year it emerged that an immigration specialist faced potential legal aid contract sanctions after a £6.40 error triggered a government audit. Last weekend defence practitioners attending the Criminal Law Solicitors Association's annual conference were told of a peer review that was upgraded from category five (failure in performance) to category three (threshold competence), suggesting that the initial assessment was unduly harsh.
Minnoch said there was a 'serious disconnect' between what the agency's senior managers are telling the group, and what practitioners working at the coalface are saying. 'And the examples we have seen are the sorts of things that drive providers out of business, or if they remain in business they are struggling to keep the doors open and deliver a service, retain staff and meet client need,' he added.
As well as the survey, which can be found here, practitioners have held public meetings and made freedom of information requests to get to grips with the issue. Minnoch said: 'We’re trying to work out whether what we see is representative of what is actually happening within the LAA. Is there resourcing issue or is it a question of LAA caseworker training? Are the regulations fundamentally unworkable? Do providers not understand the rules? Is it combination of these factors? Or is there a deliberate culture of refusal to reduce expenditure and drive providers out of the market?'