The Legal Aid Agency says it will operate flexibly to ensure providers can continue to advise clients in coronavirus-related guidance published today.
The agency said its plans take into account the impact of Covid-19 on firms’ ability to operate according to their legal aid contract, as well as prioritising the protection of staff’s health and wellbeing.
The guidance states: ‘We have robust business continuity plans covering all aspects of our work, including client applications and claims for payment (including payments not made under contract, for example direct payments to advocates). These established plans will be put in place in the event our operations are affected by coronavirus, to enable continuity of operations.
‘There is no current change to operating process, however we are identifying options to reduce administrative and audit burdens on providers and will communicate these through updates to this document.'
The agency points out that its contracts allow for ‘exceptional circumstances’.
The guidance states: ‘Priority will be given to resolving queries which relate to impacts of coronavirus, and contract management focus will be reprioritised from provider visits to ensure we can respond consistently and quickly to your queries. Responses to common queries will be reflected in future versions of this document.'
Routine contract manager visits to provider offices will stop. ‘Proportionate’ contract management work will be carried out remotely.
‘We will pause our routine reporting and recoupment activity on unrecouped payments on account with immediate effect. We are considering how else we can reduce the administrative activity for firms during this time and will communicate these with you through updates to this page,’ the guidance says.
Practitioners unable to meet office requirements should notify their contract manager and continue to document evidence on how supervision has been applied. They are expected to be able to submit application forms to clients to sign and return, but the agency is reviewing digital options for signatures.
The agency says it will take a 'proportionate' approach to duty solicitor compliance.
Meanwhile the Legal Aid Practitioners' Group has published a list of suggested measures to help providers and maintain client services, which will be updated daily. Suggested measures include relaxing the requirement for supervisors to be available on site, and lifting the requirement for practitioners to be physically in the office.
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