The Legal Aid Agency says it is working as fast as it can to process bills and payments to help cash-strapped firms during the coronavirus crisis.
In updated guidance issued last night, the agency said it recognised that the current situation will have cashflow implications for firms.
The agency is now accepting electronic forms in certain civil finance areas. Only parts of bills missing fundamental information to the assessment process will be rejected. Other amounts submitted in the bill which can be agreed will be paid promptly.
In certain situations means may be assessed without evidence. However, the agency says it could be possible to collect evidence by post or email. ‘Reasonable efforts to collect evidence should still be made and recorded, before assessing without evidence if that is not possible,’ the guidance states.
Digital client signatures will be accepted as an alternative to ‘wet’ signatures. Text messages will not be accepted. ‘In situations where it is not possible to get a client signature, digitally or otherwise, please make a note on the file explaining why, countersigned by a supervisor, and also make a note on the application/form when submitted to avoid delays or issues with processing. Please seek a signature at the earliest possible opportunity,’ the guidance says.
Time limits for delegated function applications, substantive amendments and appeals against LAA decisions have been suspended.
The agency will not take action where providers are unable to meet office and supervisory requirements. But providers are asked to consider sharing with their contract manager their planned approach to dealing with urgent matters and supervising work.
Neither will the agency take action against anyone who cannot meet duty solicitor requirements under the contract.
The Law Society said further assurances have been added to the updated guidance but a number of questions still need resolving.
Simon Davis, president, said: 'We continue to push for either firm action or a clear statement of intent on a number of outstanding issues - including a need to address concerns around the means test and the cashflow implications for firms. Duty solicitors need urgent clarification on whether they will receive the attendance fee in full for attending police station interviews remotely. We are meeting with the LAA each and every day and hope to receive further clarification in due course.'
Chris Minnoch, chief executive of the Legal Aid Practitioners Group, said the guidance contains several useful steps forward but asked providers to highlight areas requiring further focus. South West London Law Centres has asked if the agency will consider adapting the duty contract to allow for pre-possession hearing advice on the phone and representation via phone or video.
The full guidance can be found here. The arrangements last until 30 June but will be reviewed monthly.
*The Law Society is keeping the coronavirus situation under review and monitoring the advice it receives from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and Public Health England.