Family Advocacy Scheme Forms
Resolution members were disappointed that the new Advocates Attendance Forms (EX506) were re-issued without advance notice. This made it difficult for firms to update their case management systems and ensure that all fee-earners were using the correct version. Members were also concerned that if the wrong form was used in error, it could result in claims for payment being rejected and possibly even payment being withheld.
This issue was raised by Resolution and the Legal Services Commission (LSC) confirmed that the only change in the new version of this form was the reference to the new contract; and as the version of the form is not specified by their new rejection guidance for civil and family forms, the old form would be accepted and no time limit would be applied.
There is also some confusion about whether the forms need to be sealed or not – largely due to the fact that even the new forms have a space marked ‘stamp original seal’ on them. The LSC has confirmed that they do NOT have to be sealed and have issued revised guidance for Judges that makes this clear. It can be downloaded here
Raising your concerns about experts fees
We are grateful to members who have given us specific examples of family cases where applying for prior authority is causing difficulties and why. David Emmerson, (Co-Chair of Resolution’s Legal Aid Committee with Elspeth Thomson), wrote a joint letter to the Ministry of Justice and the LSC.
One of the issues causing particular unease is the apparently inconsistent approach when there is a need to apply for prior authority when the type of expert’s rate has not been listed. Whilst Resolution can understand that the LSC cannot agree that it is necessary, in cases where there are no prescribed maximum rates, to obtain prior authority as a matter of course, the practice of discouraging practitioners from applying for prior authority when the particular type of expert’s rate has not been listed, leaves practitioners financially exposed. Resolution is in dialogue with the LSC and the MOJ about this issue and others relating to experts so that hopefully, a solution can be found. We will keep you updated with progress.
Information from the LSC
LSC and validation exercises
In addition, the LSC is continuing to scrutinise all claims to ensure that they are only paying for work according to the applicable legislation and contract rules. This means that Controlled Work (Legal Help and Family Help Lower) are particularly vulnerable, since the LSC only sees these on an infrequent basis, and if it decides that claims have been made incorrectly, substantial repayments can result. Members are advised to be vigilant, particularly in relation to evidence of means. Guidance can be downloaded here
Changes to civil telephone helpline hours
The civil service telephone helpline will be resuming normal 9am to 5pm opening times from Monday 25 June for urgent calls only. Contact centre staff can only deal with calls that meet their ‘urgency criteria’ This means you should only call to chase submitted work when the two following points apply:
1) You have waited longer than the LSC’s published targets
2) The matter has become urgent because legal aid work has to be started immediately.
If your calls do not meet the criteria then it is possible your contract manager will want to talk to you about why you have been using the helpline.
The LSC are reopening the 0300 200 2020 telephone lines during these hours following negotiations with representative bodies. As well as freeing resources for the LSC to tackle backlog reductions, having fewer unnecessary calls should also help to reduce telephone waiting times. The change to opening times only affects the civil number therefore crime hours remain unchanged.
Reducing calls to the LSC
Using email to contact the LSC
Payment and processing dates
LSC liaison – updates and tips
Caroline Makin and David Emmerson from the Legal Aid Committee visited the LSC’s Birmingham Legal Services Commission office to improve understanding of the issues in relation to work processing, particularly high cost cases and payments on account.
High cost cases
The LSC maintains that if there is an agreed case plan then bills can be paid within 14 days. However, a growing concern is the fact that so many firms do not have agreed case plans.
Resolution is keen to develop training in respect of preparing and agreeing case plans, including the identification of the appropriate bench mark documents. It is proposed to have a further meeting based at South Tyneside to discuss the issue in more detail.
The Commission monitors the amount of outstanding work and moves applications around its offices by DX to those most able to process the applications quickly. There had been a significant improvement in processing in almost all areas. However, of the 9000 applications received each month at the LSC, 4000 are returned to organisations with apparent errors. David Emmerson commented, “It was noticeable how many applications were rejected for solicitor errors, for example, forms not being signed and dated.”
Payments on account
The Committee members saw applications for payment on account being processed. Key points here are:
- ensuring that the name is spelt correctly and the certificate number is correct
- it doesn’t particularly matter if the dates of birth are incorrect as this can be overwritten.
The LSC’s process is as follows:
- check whether or not the application is within the cost limit and see whether payments have been made before
- if it is an application for payment on account and disbursements then the invoice is checked and the invoice must have the client’s name or case reference on it
- you can put a message for the LSC caseworker in the “summary section”. This is useful if an explanation needs to be made, for example if you are seeking payment of an invoice for the same amount as a previous invoice, e.g. process server’s fees, you might wish to state that this is not a duplicate claim. The computer highlights any claim for the same amount which may on the face of it present a problem for the LSC.
- The LSC do not check experts’ rates for payments on account. They do check that the fixed fee claim is correct. They are only interested in the global figure, not the detailed calculation.
The LSC’s process is as follows:
- check is whether or not it is the correct version of the LSC form
- check the client’s name
- check that the solicitors making the claim are the present solicitors
- the LSC does not check scope and certificate limitations
On Claim 1s, the LSC does check the codified rates for expert disbursements.
Not only do they check the rates but they also check the hours too check to see whether a ‘show cause’ letter has been sent and the claim does not cover any period where the Certificate was embargoed.
The LSC’s process is as follows:check that the work is completed within the dates the Certificate was in force FAS forms are not necessary when claiming only Unit 1. Otherwise the original is needed. The form needs to be signed or stamped claims for bolt-ons must be either initialled or sealed it is better if you complete a separate page 4 for each individual claim if you are claiming a final hearing fee, the LSC checks that the Certificate covers level 4.
Caroline and David were impressed at the size and scale of it all and felt that congratulations were due to all the LSC’s Ops staff for reducing backlogs in almost every area.
Resolution members are helping the Commission to pilot new payment on account forms. We hope that as a result, a constructive way forward will be identified to minimise the number of rejections and the adverse impacts on firms and the LSC.
Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year Awards
The prestigious LALY awards were presented at a glittering ceremony on the 12 of June. A panel of 11 judges, chaired by Michael Mansfield QC had selected 28 finalists across nine different categories, after reading over 1,000 pages of nominations. Entries were supported by testimonials from clients, medical and other experts, judges and campaigners.
Resolution sponsors the Family Legal Aid Lawyer of the Year award, and congratulates the winner, Rachel Horman head of the specialist domestic violence and forced marriage department at Watson Ramsbottom in Blackburn. Rachel said, “I am honoured and amazed to have made it to the shortlist when so many outstanding lawyers from all over the country were also nominated in this category. It really is the equivalent of winning an Oscar in the legal world and I would like to dedicate the nomination to all the victims that I have been privileged to have worked with over the last 15 years.”
We are also delighted that the two other finalists in this category, Razia Jogi from Switalskis in Bradford, and Lindsay Taylor from Watkins Gunn in Pontypool, are also both members of Resolution.
Congratulations are also due to Turpin Miller, winners of the legal aid firm of the year. Emily Boardman, head of the family department, is the chair of Oxfordshire's Resolution group and sits on Resolution's national Legal Aid Committee.
Revised Specialist Quality Mark
The LSC recently updated the SQM standard and guidance. The current version is now the one dated May 2012. The changes are relatively minor; to update terminology, allow ABS’ to apply for the SQM in future, and make the SQM consistent with the equality and diversity requirements in the contract.