Legal aid: a sustainable future? - a summary
ASA sets out its first thoughts on Carter
ASA has published an initial response to the LSC/DCA consultation. It covers
- Fixed fees
- Regional allocation of funds
- Who should be in charge of quality
The response examines the fixed fee proposals for the social welfare law categories of debt, welfare benefits, housing and employment. It considers them a crude attempt to implement the overall approach outlined in the Carter report and finds that they are incompatible with
- The emphasis on social welfare law in the CLS strategy
- The emphasis on a client-centred CLS
- The emphasis on quality in the preferred supplier proposals
It concludes that
- Any change in payment methods should be deferred to coincide with the introduction of the preferred supplier scheme and to enable further research to be carried out into the determinants of case costs.
- The proposed fees are set far too low to deliver the swings and roundabouts necessary to ensure a case mix which meets the needs of all clients.
- The proposals would create a perverse incentive for all suppliers to cherry pick easy cases and easy clients.
- Some suppliers may be tempted to cut corners, or do less for clients, leading to a reduction in the quality of services provided.
- There are alternatives that should be considered. These include: tailored fixed fees; higher fee levels; more categories of fees; graduated fees; more sophisticated escape mechanisms; and special provision for niche organisations.
Regional allocation of funds
Carter recommends that the allocation of social welfare funding should be based on a formula using data from means tested benefits eg income support as a proxy for legal aid eligibility.
ASA is concerned that the proposal relies on two dubious assumptions; that eligibility is a proxy for need and that the relationship between eligibility and need is constant across England and Wales. ASA urges that further work is carried out in this area and that a proper consultation is undertaken before any change is made.
Carter proposes the transfer of all quality assurance for solicitors from the LSC to the Law Society by April 2009. NfP agencies are expected to develop their own quality standards.
ASA opposes this change. The preferred supplier scheme requires assessment of all contracted suppliers against a single quality standard. If responsibility for monitoring quality is split, this will not be possible.
Read the whole document. Note that it is an initial response and that ASA will publish a full response closer to the consultation deadline of 12th October.