The Ministry of Justice says it is embarking on a project to review the experiences that lawyers have with its approval and contracting processes for legal aid services.
The project will have two phases. The first, which begins in October 2019, will focus on provider application, approval and contracting processes. The second, starting in April 2020, will focus on quality assurance processes including the complaints and audit processes.
The ministry says engagement with lawyers will begin from October.
The resulting changes will affect lawyers in all courts and tribunals acting in proceedings for which legal aid may be granted under sections 6-8 and 10-12 of the Legal Services Act 2011. The changes will also affect anyone applying to provide specified legal services.
“There are many benefits to this project; we’ll make it easier for lawyers to become legal aid providers and in doing so we also hope to grow the pool of providers, making it much easier for people to find a legal aid lawyer,” says Secretary for Justice Andrew Kibblewhite.
First step is change to QC requirements
The ministry says it has decided to make it easier for Queen's Counsel to apply to become legal aid providers.
“We recognise the level of skill and dedication required to achieve QC status and we’re removing some of the hoops they need to jump through," Mr Kibblewhite says.
"I have decided that we will not require Queen’s Counsel to provide work samples or references if they are seeking approval to work in their usual area of practice."
Phase one plans
The ministry has provided information on its plans for the first phase of the review. It says several discovery interviews with providers who had recently gone through the application, approval and contracting processes have helped it identify four focus areas to improve the approval and contracting processes.
Application forms: There are currently 22 application forms for lawyers wanting to become legal aid providers, with each form relating to a specific area of law. The ministry says it aims to reduce the number of application forms and ask purposeful questions that are asked for the assessment. These changes should reduce the time and effort required to make an application.
Reapplying to continue providing legal aid services: Legal aid lawyers must reapply every 3-5 years to continue providing legal aid services in each area of law they are approved for. The intention is to provide an opportunity to reasses performance. The ministry says in practice this is not the appropriate stage to undertake the assessment and the project aims to remove the requirement for lawyers to continue reapplying for approval.
Better Selection Committee guidance: Six regional Selection Committee panels provide recommendations on an applicant’s suitability to provide the legal aid service(s) applied for. The Legal Services Quality Assurance Regulations 2011 set out the approval requirements at a high-level. The project aims to develop operational guidance for both applicants and Selection Committee members to ensure consistent assessment of applications and quality standards are met.
Contract renewals: Lawyers approved for provide legal aid services are given a contract which is valid for two years. The ministry says contract renewals are not currently processed at the same time as a lawyer is re-approved to provide legal aid services. The project aims to remove the contract renewal process and combine the contract with the approval documentation when a lawyer first applies to provide legal aid services.
The ministry says consultation with the legal profession begins in October 2019 and this will be conducted via its web-based platform, Consultation Hub. It says there will be further information about the consultation process in early October.