The Comptroller and Auditor General, Amyas Morse, has qualified the 2009-10 accounts of the Legal Services Commission because of overpayments made by the Commission to legal aid providers, estimated at almost £77 million.
The Legal Services Commission is responsible for the provision of legal aid in England and Wales through the Community Legal Service Fund (for civil cases) and the Criminal Defence Service (for criminal cases).
The NAO, as part of its annual audit of the Legal Services Commission, identified an estimated total overpayment to legal aid providers of £76.5 million in 2009-10; this is up from an estimated £24.7 million in 2008-09. Of the estimated total error, £32.9 million were payments made to legal aid providers where legal aid had been provided to claimants whose eligibility could not be demonstrated. The remaining £43.6 million of erroneous payments were made to legal aid providers working on cases which were eligible for legal aid, but where legal aid providers over-claimed for the work they did. In addition, an estimated £2.1 million was erroneously charged by the Commission to clients. Where practical, the Commission is using the results of the audit to recover money from or make repayments to specific clients or legal aid providers.
The highest level of error was in relation to legal aid providers working on Family and Immigration claims. Within this area, the NAO’s testing showed that 35 per cent of the claims examined were incorrect or not fully supported. For many cases, the error resulted from an incorrect claim by the solicitor regarding the level of fee, which reflects the number of face-to-face meetings held with the client.
The Commission has, however, made progress. It now has a stronger provider assurance framework and a better understanding of the full extent of risks to the legal aid fund from fraud and error; and has improved the quality of data and validation of key balances within the accounts.