Sunday, 22 August 2010

Report: Present UK legal aid system acts to disincentivise quality

Poor pay sees lawyers stop legal aid workImage by publik16 via Flickr

While it is clear that quality work costs, this review has found evidence that poor quality work costs much more in the longer term both to the public purse and in human terms to individual asylum applicants. The LSC's Graduated Fee Scheme pays for legal aid work through a series of fixed fees. The evidence suggests that these fixed fees, combined with the low threshold level of quality at which legal aid providers can enter and operate in the UK market for asylum advice, may be designed to incentivise efficiency but in fact are likely to cost more in the long term.

The quality of legal representation is of paramount importance to asylum seekers whose cases routinely raise issues of life and liberty. This report, part of a research project looking at the costs of providing quality legal representation, outlines new findings that show the present legal aid system acts to disincentivise quality.

This report draws together original research, including interviews with stakeholders and refugees, a preliminary analysis of a file review exercise, together with a review of existing evidence. The report starts by identifying the key elements of high quality legal representation in asylum work drawing these together into a definition that will be used to identify how much high quality legal work costs to deliver. The research then establishes the key role that quality legal representation has to play in a cost effective decision making system. It then argues that the present LSC funding system acts to prevent quality provision.

The first report in this research project concluded that spending sufficient time to exercise knowledge and expertise and build a good relationship with the client is an essential ingredient to quality. It also pointed to evidence that quality work is more likely to achieve early resolution of the case, saving money in the long term.

A preliminary analysis of the file reviews conducted as part of this research shows a correlation between cost and quality and between quality and successful outcomes. Interviews with legal representatives, Home Office and judicial stakeholders suggest that quality appears to be suffering: for example, critical witness statements in adult cases have now become a rarity: it appears that only representatives committed to quality work continue to prepare them.

All providers who reach a minimum level of quality are currently paid an identical fee under the Graduated Fee Scheme, reducing the incentive to strive for high quality, in effect penalising those firms that do, and forcing the choice between financial survival and responsibility to their clients.
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