The government has been urged to go easy on firms that make minor contractual errors after the Legal Aid Agency praised solicitors for their significantly improved compliance.
John Sirodcar, the agency’s head of contract management, told the Legal Aid Practitioners Group conference in London today that the agency issued 20% fewer contract notices last year. Notices may be issued after an audit, requiring a firm to make significant performance improvements in the highlighted area of work over the next six months. The agency issued 50% fewer contract sanctions last year and terminated 50% fewer contracts.
‘You as a profession are much more compliant,’ Sirodcar said. However, the agency still has ‘deep concerns’ about a ‘number’ of firms.
Sirodcar said: ‘Our job is to bottle those out, work with firms [and] either they exit the market or become compliant. We need to get the balance right. We are continually trying to find better ways of doing so.’
However, Nicola Mackintosh QC, sole principal of London firm Mackintosh Law, urged Sirodcar to have a ‘reasonable and proportionate process’ in relation to compliance. Mackintosh said: ‘Will you work with us to try to improve the criteria for issuing notices? Not focus on those firms who are doing very well at what they do but, maybe from time to time, miss out that one item of paper for a claim? Those are the firms where issuing a contract notice is disproportionate and causes anxiety and erodes the trust we have in you.’
Sirodcar acknowledged a ‘growing feeling’ that the issuing of contract notices is excessive, but warned the conference that consistency and discretion can be ‘tricky’.
Meanwhile, Jane Harbottle, head of civil legal aid and head of criminal casework at the agency, told the conference that the agency is working on moving its controversial client and cost management system ‘to a more stable platform and put it in some cloud-based IT system’. Moving to a cloud-based system will enable the agency to make changes internally rather than outsource the work to external contractors. Last year 255 changes were made to the system, the conference heard.