Delays in granting legal aid by the Legal Services Commission and ‘aggressive’ enforcement by its debt collectors of legal aid contributions are causing anxiety for clients and have driven some to attempt suicide, the Gazette has learned.
Solicitors have complained that the LSC is taking too long to grant legal aid to clients, leaving some forced to represent themselves in the magistrates’ courts. However, they claim that where defendants are required to make a financial contribution towards their legal costs, the LSC’s debt collection agency Rossendales has been too quick to begin collecting any payments due from clients as soon as legal aid is assessed.
The Gazette has been told of three cases where the stress caused by these problems has led defendants to attempt or contemplate suicide.
In one instance, a defendant in an assault case received a letter from Rossendales demanding £7,000 and threatening to send bailiffs, two weeks after legal aid had been granted. The defendant became so distressed that he threatened to kill himself, and his family had to follow him to prevent him harming himself at a railway line.
In another case, a defendant who was on full legal aid with no contribution due telephoned his solicitor in a suicidal state after receiving a demand for £6,000 from Rossendales.
In the third instance, a defendant attempted to commit suicide when a delay in granting legal aid by the LSC left him without representation the day before the start of his Crown court trial.
Jill Eastwood, Crown court caseworker at Tuckers in Manchester, said Rossendales’ actions were ‘oppressive’. She cited one case where it had taken more than four months for legal aid to be granted, leaving the defendant to attend his committal hearing unrepresented. Within days of legal aid being granted, the client received a letter from Rossendales chasing payment.
‘The client, who has no previous convictions, was very panicky when they received the letter threatening enforcement action. This behaviour is oppressive,’ she said.
Robin Murray, senior partner at Kent firm Robin Murray & Co, said: ‘It takes ages to obtain legal aid, and then almost immediately the attack dogs are let loose in the form of debt collection agencies. It’s too aggressive.’
Rodney Warren, director of the Criminal Law Solicitors Association, said: ‘For some people, facing criminal charges is the most frightening thing to happen in their lives. The delay in sorting out legal aid adds to their stress, and receiving letters threatening enforcement action is terrifying.’
An LSC spokesman, also commenting on behalf of Rossendales, said: ‘We take allegations of this nature seriously. If anyone feels that they have been unfairly pressured into paying a contribution, we and Rossendales would be keen to see specific evidence so we can investigate. Where an applicant has been assessed as able to pay, based on information they themselves provided, it is right that we expect to collect.’
The spokesman said there is a code of conduct to ensure the collection process is handled with sensitivity where applicants are vulnerable.
In relation to delay in processing applications, he said the LSC had recently had an issue with some applications which have not been fully completed, or completed incorrectly and had to be returned.
He added that it aims to process 90% of applications within two days, and 100% within six days.