Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 24 of Session 2002-03, dated 20 June 2003


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, today urged the Legal Services Commission to obtain more information on the quality of service provided by its suppliers and to act quickly when firms underperform or overcharge.

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 24th Report of this Session, which examined the Legal Services Commission's administration of civil legal aid through the Community Legal Service in England and Wales. The Service provides eligible people with access to legal services, for example on family law, social welfare issues, and advice on asylum applications. In 2001-02, net expenditure borne by the Community Legal Service Fund totalled £734 million. At 31 March 2002, 4,543 solicitors' firms and 389 not-for-profit agencies had contracts with the Commission to provide legal help, and a further 389 solicitor's firms were licensed to carry out legal representation work.

The Committee found that suppliers of Civil Legal Aid provide an important service to some of the most disadvantaged people in society. The good service provided by many suppliers may, however, be tarnished by poor quality advice and persistent over claiming of costs by some. The Department and the Commission needs to act quickly in such cases to bring about early improvements in performance to protect the interests of those needing advice, and to protect public funds. Firms who consistently underperform or overcharge should have their contracts terminated and, where appropriate, be referred to their professional body.

Shortages of expertise exist in some areas of legally aided work such as family law, creating potential access difficulties especially for those living in rural areas. The Commission should consider how the supplier base can be developed further, for example by extending accreditation schemes for people training as specialists in particular aspects of the law only. Such an approach may reduce the overall costs of advice, and provide greater flexibility of supply.

The Commission should obtain more evidence about the quality of service provided by suppliers by evaluating outcomes achieved for clients where appropriate, and by extending the use of its peer review system, already trialled successfully on asylum and immigration work in London. Past service quality should be evaluated in making decisions about the award of contracts and costs of services.

The Commission should evaluate the costs and benefits of its current approach to administering the Community Legal Aid Scheme, and devote resources to those activities which have the most impact in protecting public funds or which address areas of greatest risk. The Commission's debt recovery team, for example, recovers one pound for every three pence spent on the team, and a similar evaluation of the compliance audit regime should be undertaken. The outcome should be compared to alternative methods of oversight such as analysing the profile of claims submitted by suppliers and automated review of trends in claims and payments, especially where a supplier's audit record is good. An investigation should also be made into how the application of new technology could offer significant savings in the auditing of suppliers' compliance.

Mr Leigh said today:

"The Legal Services Commission and its suppliers provide legal advice and representation to some of the most disadvantaged people in society. This makes it all the more unacceptable that, whilst many suppliers deliver a good service, some provide poor advice or persistently overcharge. The Commission needs to get more evidence about quality of service and, with the Department, act quickly and decisively when firms underperform or inflate their claims for payment. At the same time, the Commission should improve the consistency of its compliance audits through measures such as training and peer review."

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