The Legal Aid Agency has been told to apologise to a law centre for ‘unreasonable delays’ that resulted in the law centre incurring losses of around £50,000. Publishing the findings of an investigation today, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman said the LAA’s failure to address unfairness arising from its procedures was ‘maladministration’.
The law centre, which has not been named, complained to the ombudsman about decisions the LAA made on legal aid applications for three of its clients, EU nationals the Home Office had found rough sleeping and ordered to be deported.
The law centre successfully challenged the Home Office in court. However, the law centre told the ombudsman that delays in securing legal aid and the agency’s refusal to backdate payments resulted in £50,000 loss which the law centre was unable to recoup.
The ombudsman said its investigation found that the LAA 'unreasonably delayed' reaching decisions on the legal applications and that its procedures for deciding the outcome of legal aid applications, together with its interpretation of the legislation that it could not backdate certificates, led to an unfair situation for some groups of people. The agency should have done something to address the unfairness. ‘Not to have done so was maladministration’, the ombudsman said.
To put things right, the ombudsman told the LAA to ensure its backdating policy eliminates unfairness, apologise to the law centre, and pay the costs the law centre was unable to recoup.
Ombudsman Rob Behrens said: ‘In this case, service failings essentially resulted in one government body blocking individuals from challenging the decisions of another. This sets a dangerous precedent and shows how vulnerable citizens’ rights can be when faced with ineffective and discriminatory government policies.
‘Government departments and agencies must make sure that nobody is unfairly disadvantaged by their processes. This is particularly pertinent now as the pandemic has exacerbated existing societal inequalities, which means more people are at risk of falling foul of government service failings.’
Julie Bishop, director of Law Centres Network, said many law centres and legal aid providers face delayed LAA decisions. ‘In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA, and has nothing to do with protecting the public purse. In effect, it restricts access to legal aid, making it harder for lawyers to launch legal action with confidence and for people to resolve their legal problems. The result is that it piles pressure on legal aid providers. All this runs against the very purpose of the Legal Aid Agency. We call on them to fix it now.’
An LAA spokesperson said: ‘We’ve made significant improvements to speed up the system and payments can now be backdated to ensure claimants get the support they need. We have noted the ombudsman’s report and will carefully consider its findings.’
Guidance provided by the agency states that the rules were changed in February 2019 to allow payments to be backdated. Last year 92% of civil applications were processed within 20 working days.