The Legal Aid Agency is sitting on at least £1.4m that solicitors and barristers have not yet claimed for viewing unused material, the Gazette has learned through a freedom of information request.
Last month justice minister James Cartlidge revealed that his department had spent only a fifth of an annual £51m criminal legal aid injection for a package of accelerated measures between September 2020 and September 2021.
The extra funding, announced in August 2020, covered unused material, paper-heavy cases, cracked trials, sending cases to the Crown court and pre-charge engagement.
Cartlidge said the slow spend was due to a number of factors, including the impact of Covid-19 on the court system, which had slowed the rate at which new cases are disposed of by the courts. He said there had also been a lower than expected number of providers making claims where they are eligible to do so under certain accelerated items, such as the fixed fee for consideration of unused material.
The Gazette asked for further details about the unclaimed cash in a freedom of information request.
The LAA confirmed that all providers are entitled to claim the fixed fee for considering unused material (which covers up to the first three hours) for any case on indictment other than a guilty plea, so it was possible to calculate from billing records the minimum amount of unclaimed cash.
Based on current records, there are 9,359 unclaimed fixed fees for viewing unused material under the advocates’ graduated fee scheme, with a minimum value of £663,553. There are 9,093 unclaimed fixed fees under the litigators’ graduated fee scheme, with a minimum value of £705,799.
‘It is likely that the total amount of unclaimed money in respect of this accelerated measure is higher as in some of the cases where no fixed fee was claimed, the provider would have been eligible to claim for time spent viewing the material in excess of three hours on an hourly rates basis,' the LAA said. 'It is not, however, possible to identify volumes or amount of likely payments from data the MoJ holds.'
The reply said that the Legal Aid Agency has increased communications reminding providers to claim this fee and has added prompts to the digital payment system. 'In order to claim the fixed fee which covers 0-3 hours work on unused material on any case on indictment other than a guilty plea, providers only need to select the appropriate "miscellaneous fee" on Claim for Crown Court Defence (CCCD). No further supporting evidence is required to validate the claim.'
The agency said it was not possible to identify unclaimed cash for paper-heavy cases and sending cases to the Crown court due to the way information is recorded on the electronic billing system.
The accelerated measure concerning payment for cracked trials is automatically paid so there are no unclaimed eligible payments.