A requirement introduced in the latest criminal legal aid contracts to tackle the issue of 'ghost' duty solicitors should not be used disproportionately to penalise firms acting in good faith, the Law Society has warned.
'Ghosts' are solicitors whose details are used to obtain slots but who do not do the work. Under the new crime contract, duty solicitors are required to carry out 14 hours' contract work per week from the office for which they derive their rota slots.
The Criminal Law Solicitors' Association has received 'extremely concerning' reports on how the 14-hour requirement is being interpreted. The association, on its website, states: 'It is of concern that some contract managers are taking an entirely draconian and unreasonable approach in relation to the audits and that genuine duty solicitors and firms are being affected in a manner that was never intended.'
The Gazette understands that firms are concerned that some auditors are being harsher than others about the meaning of the term 'contract work'. There are worries that, in some rural areas, firms are being penalised if there is insufficient work for every duty solicitor to do 14 hours per week. The requirement is also believed to have affected part-time workers, in particular single parents, who would need to be employed for more than two days to fulfil the 14-hour requirement.
Chancery Lane is 'actively raising' concerns with the Legal Aid Agency. Joe Egan, Society president, said: 'The 14-hour requirement was introduced to tackle the issue of 'ghost' duty solicitors, but it must not be used disproportionately to penalise firms acting in good faith.
'The term "contract work" is not clearly identified in the criminal legal aid contract itself, but the Legal Aid Agency appears in some cases to be taking a very limited interpretation of the term. We are very concerned by member reports that some LAA auditors are more harsh than others and we are actively raising these concerns with the LAA, with the aim of agreeing a more pragmatic approach to this rule.'