Our files are dealt with in a timely and professional manner. No job is too small. Our queries are dealt with without question or delay.
Gill Perry, Jones Myers LLP
On the 11th October 2013 the Legal Aid Practitioners Group held their annual conference ‘Legal Aid: Facing the Future’ in Manchester. It has of course been an extremely difficult year for legal aid providers; LASPO came into force in April and further changes are ahead as part of the Transforming Legal Aid proposals. Prior to the conference Carol Storer, Director of the LAPG, pondered on twitter whether there would be despair, dogged determination or drama.
The day started with a panel discussion on facing the future in legal aid. Franklin Sinclair, Tuckers Solicitors, envisaged a future where there may be only 300 or so criminal legal aid firms providing a stable market. Ann Harrison, Stephensons Solicitors LLP, highlighted an absolute commitment to the delivery of public funding work and the need to be flexible in the services offered to those who are no longer eligible for civil legal aid, including offering unbundling and fixed fee options.
Lord McNally was booked to be the keynote speaker in the morning session; however the ministerial reshuffle at the beginning of the week had resulted in Shailesh Vara being handed responsibility for Legal Aid. With Lord McNally not attending and with Mr Vara also unavailable Dr Elizabeth Gibby, Deputy Director, Legal Aid and Legal Services Policy at the Ministry of Justice, stepped in. She acknowledged that the proposals for transforming legal aid were tough but insisted they were driven by harsh economic reality. The delegates seized the opportunity to raise their concerns including the failure of the exceptional funding scheme and the risk of direct action being taken by Solicitors and Barristers against cuts. Dr Gibby was also asked by one delegate why she should waste any more time responding to a third consultation for judicial review when it seems to be totally ideologically based, not properly costed and with such a poor evidence base. Although Dr Gibby highlighted that some proposals had been adjusted as a result of feedback, there was understandably great frustration that very little notice had been taken of the responses overall. There was a danger of despair taking an early lead!
A number of workshop sessions took place throughout the day including a family law update, marketing and social media, increasing private client work, recent developments in judicial review claims and LAA top tips. The top tips session included a look at current issues in respect of billing. The LAA reported that 24.4% of claims submitted were rejected in August. I took the opportunity to ask them if they had figures on how many claims are incorrectly rejected; they advised me that the figure was 3%. The figure seemed extremely low based on the evidence we at John M Hayes see on a day to day basis. It transpired that the data was taken directly from cases that had been submitted to the reject fix email address. I pointed out that some incorrect rejects may not end up being challenged in this way. It was agreed that it is very important for providers to ensure that they report anything that they feel is an incorrect reject to the reject fix email address.
The afternoon session included an LAA Panel discussion followed by a Q and A. During this session serious concerns were expressed regarding the pilot of online CCMS; however it was confirmed that they intended to roll out the system in January 2013 for provider names starting A-F and then for everyone else in March. There was still room for some much needed laughter in this session when one delegate asked the panel ‘Are you doing anything to re-arrange the furniture at Jarrow so that the shredder is not directly below your DX box?’
Richard Miller, Head of Legal Aid at the Law Society, highlighted the biggest problem as being the lack of political commitment to legal aid. This, he felt, made it a difficult argument to win but one that must continue to be made. He closed by saying ‘We are not going away, we will continue to be a thorn in their side’.
The day was rounded up by Carol Storer. She conceded that it had been a terrible year that had left civil practitioners reeling; however she encouraged everyone to continue to push the message that ‘cuts don’t equal savings’. She expressed how proud she was to be working with people delivering legal aid work and emphasised that ‘We won’t go away’.
So despite any despair, I think dogged determination was the winner.