The Legal Services Commission (LSC) announced concessions in the means testing process for criminal defence legal aid this week ? as London firm Hickman & Rose said it will act as a clearing house for what it expects to be ?hundreds? of judicial review actions over the way the scheme operates.
Under the new arrangements, from next January solicitors will be given five days to submit forms to qualify for the early cover payment, provided this happens no later than the first hearing.
From 11 December, forms will be accepted without a partner?s signature if there is evidence that they are unable to sign, and solicitors will receive a guarantee that representation orders will start from the date a complete form was first submitted if the defendant qualifies for legal aid, even in cases where there is a technical error on the form.
Law Society Vice-President Andrew Holroyd said these were welcome reforms in problematic areas, but a full review was still necessary.
Hickman & Rose managing partner Jane Hickman claimed the way the means test operates can breach a defendant?s right to a fair trial. Defendants may have a case if their application for legal aid was rejected even though they could not afford to pay for a solicitor, and they went without representation as a result, she said.
Ms Hickman said: ?Once solicitors stop doing free work [by acting before a representation order is in place], one-third of cases will be judicially reviewable, and that point has arrived... there are hundreds of these cases out there.?
She added: ?[Judicial review] will be a very expensive way of doing things, because the clients will pass the test for civil legal aid by just satisfying a solicitor that they do not have the means. If a case went all the way, it would cost ?20,000 to ?30,000.?
Hickman & Rose will co-ordinate judicial review applications and provide secondary advice where it is needed.
An LSC spokesman urged Hickman & Rose and other firms to resolve issues through negotiation rather than the courts, to avoid ?wasted money?.
Meanwhile, an online survey by information service Crimeline showed dissatisfaction with means testing among magistrates and court staff, as well as defence lawyers. More than one-third of the 75 court staff who responded said the system was ?running poorly?, while 49% said it was ?not running well?.
Magistrates Association chairwoman Cindy Barnett told the Gazette that ?in some cases applications for legal aid are causing delay?. Chris Armstrong, clerk to the Cumbria Justices and co-vice-president of the Justices? Clerks? Society, said ?more consultation with defence and court practitioners would have been desirable, rather than running on with something that?s proved to be a problem for everybody?.
However, Becky Turner, head of operations at Avon and Somerset Courts Service, said figures for October showed 80% of its applications had been processed within the two-day time limit.