A Sustainable Future? - ASA responds to the LSC Consultation
ASA's concerns about the LSC's proposals can be summarised under the following headings: quality, managing change, fixed fees and regional allocation of funding.
ASA supports the introduction of a strict quality threshold for all legal aid suppliers and is in favour of the use of peer review as the monitoring tool. The peer review process should be evaluated regularly to ensure that standards are being upheld. We are concerned that the LSC intends to rely too heavily on cheaper and less reliable methods of monitoring quality, namely quality profiling and file assessment.
The LSC should acknowledge now that it will not be able to keep to its April 2009 deadline for implementing the Preferred Supplier scheme. This would take the pressure off the LSC to achieve an unrealistic target and would allow borderline suppliers more time to achieve the required quality standard.
We oppose Lord Carter's proposal that responsibility for peer review of solicitors should pass to the Law Society and that the NfP sector should develop its own quality scheme.
Further research is needed to ensure that specific needs, such as those of black and minority ethnic clients and communities, are met under any new scheme. There must be a full race impact assessment before any changes are implemented.
Financial assistance needs to be available to NfP organisations in the same way as for solicitors firms and any change in payment methods should be deferred until all preferred suppliers have been selected.
The introduction of fixed fees, as proposed by the LSC, is likely to be seriously detrimental to the provision of advice and assistance in social welfare law, given
- The variation in case costs/lengths that exists within these areas
- The fact that the proposed implementation is out of sync with the proposed implementation of the preferred supplier proposals
- The fact that the LSC does not seem to know what types of cases it wishes to buy
- The likely effects on the cases that suppliers will take on
- The likely effect on quality
- The likely effect on the overall provision of services to clients in social welfare law
Further research and analysis needs to be carried out into the types of cases undertaken in social welfare law; the types of clients helped; the case mix of different providers and the factors that are linked to different case lengths.
Alternative proposals should be considered, including: an extension of tailored fixed fees; higher fee levels; more categories of fees; graduated fees; more sophisticated escape mechanisms; and special provision for niche organisations.
Moving to payment in arrears would cause considerable difficulties for NfP organisations and would be in breach of the Compact. We therefore oppose it.
Regional allocation of funding
There should be further research, debate and consultation before any changes are made to the allocation of funding for social welfare law between the regions.
ASA's full response.