The Legal Aid Agency is reviewing its Covid-19 contingency arrangements which could result in some temporary changes becoming permanent.

Malcolm Bryant, former head of exceptional and complex cases, told a Westminster Legal Policy Forum yesterday that the agency is working with providers to see which emergency changes will continue.

The agency has implemented over 40 contingency measures during the pandemic.

Bryant, who now heads the Public Defender Service, said: ‘We did put things [in] with pace. We do need to review where they have worked from all sides before making a decision on whether they will continue permanently.’ Providers will be notified if the agency reverts back to old arrangements, he added.

Bryant revealed that the agency received 566 queries from providers at the outset of the pandemic and national lockdown.

He said the agency rapidly broke these down into 140 distinct issues that required specific responses, which covered three main themes: financial support covering cash flow and fees/allowances; process changes; and contract requirement flexibilities.

Bryant said the agency had to dramatically speed up payment. For instance, the agency would only reject bills that were missing fundamental information. It paid for taxi and private vehicle costs, and allowed travel from home. The agency also paid costs for establishing video links as disbursements.

Process changes included accepting digital signatures and suspending time limits for delegated function applications, substantive amendments and appeals against LAA decisions.

The agency suspended routine visits, audits and peer review activity until August. It did not take any action against firms which were unable to meet minimum hour requirements for duty solicitors.

On the impact of Covid-19, Bryant said civil applications fell by around 15%, crime applications fell by around 34%, there was an initial 20% rise in bills submitted, and customer service calls fell by 45%.

Looking at further pressures ‘as we move into recovery stage’, Bryant said the agency is recruiting to strengthen capacity within its crime billing team. Bryant said Crown court activity will probably have the greatest pressure for the agency. ‘We need to ensure we have the staff there with the capability and capacity to deal with that when that works comes in,’ he said.

The forum was looking at the next steps for legal aid. At an earlier session, Richard Miller, the Law Society’s head of justice, said it was ‘100% inevitable’ that the system will collapse unless there is significant change. Between April 2019 and September 2020, he said 73 offices had closed their family legal aid departments. 

Malvika Jaganmohan, a family barrister at St Ives Chambers, pointed out that lawyers get paid for the hearing time, ‘which could be all of 10 minutes’, but practitioners do not get paid for necessary work done before and after the hearing, such as drafting attendance notes or position statements.

Stephen Davies, a criminal defence solicitor at national firm Tuckers, called for an independent pay review board to keep the issue of fees and rates ‘away from politicians’.