A criminal legal aid solicitor who can work only in the evenings because of the need to care for their disabled child is among those who could lose a duty rota slot due to a requirement introduced to tackle the issue of 'ghost' solicitors.
The solicitor’s plight was highlighted in a survey carried out by the London Criminal Courts Solicitors' Association, a practitioner group, which says members risk losing their place on duty schemes even though they regularly work on cases.
Under the 2017 crime contracts, which came into force in April, duty solicitors must carry out a minimum of 36 court hearings and police station attendances in a rolling 12-month period. However, to stop firms from paying solicitors to use their details as 'ghosts' to obtain additional slots, duty solicitors are required to carry out 14 hours’ contract work per week from the office for which they derive their rota slots.
Two-thirds of the 145 members who responded to the association's survey experienced problems supplying evidence to a contract manager or expected problems to arise. Eleven have been sanctioned for non-compliance or knew colleagues who have been sanctioned. Two respondents took pre-emptive action to withdraw several solicitors from the rota. One member received warnings for minor reporting errors; one was suspended for six months; another was given one month to comply following an audit.
The association said one member, who has been forced to work part-time on medical advice, is unlikely to meet the minimum requirement even though they regularly do contract work. Some parents do not know if taking leave during the school summer holidays will exclude them from the scheme. One parent and freelancer has been asked to work for free to make up the hours.
The association said: 'This rule is a blunt instrument for removing ghosts from the rota, those being forced to leave were not the intended target of this measure. We hope the LAA will recognise that there is a risk of unlawful discrimination.'
Following unanimous representations by the Law Society and practitioner groups for Crown court advocacy to count towards contract work, the Legal Aid Agency has agreed to set up a working group to review the 14-hour requirement.