Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and Auditor General, has today qualified the accounts of the Community Legal Service Fund and the Criminal Defence Service because of errors in payments to legal aid providers.
The errors highlighted in today’s report include £20.4 million paid to legal aid providers where the claim was not in compliance with the statutory fee regimes; and £15.2 million relating to legal aid payments for people who were not eligible or whose eligibility could not be proven. The total estimated amount of irregular payments has fallen by 28 per cent when compared with the 2010-11 accounts (from £49.5 million to £35.6 million).
The Commission has made significant improvements in the level of total irregular expenditure reported in 2011-12 when compared with 2010-11. The main areas of improvement are immigration and family Legal Help schemes (where estimated irregularity has fallen from £14.0 million to £2.8 million) and the Civil Representation Scheme (where irregularity has fallen from £18.2 million to £12.8 million).
However, irregularity has increased for some schemes. For example, claims made by solicitors and advocates in relation to Crown Court cases, which since 1 January 2011 have been administered by the Commission instead of HM Courts and Tribunals Service, have seen the estimated irregularity increase significantly since 2010-11 from £1.0 million to £4.5 million.
The Commission continues to take steps to improve, such as further strengthening compliance testing and examining the root causes of error. This is particularly important at this time in light of the planned legal aid reforms under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
In 2010-11, the C&AG also limited the scope of his audit opinion in respect of the receivables balance (debt owed to the Commission by people receiving legal aid), as the Commission was unable to provide sufficient evidence to support the value of the balance. The Commission has undertaken a substantial amount of work in 2011-12 to review and cleanse the recording and reporting of debt. The C&AG has, as a result of this work, been able to provide a clear opinion in this respect for 2011-12.