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The introduction of new arrangements in 2000 for the funding of civil legal aid has led to better scrutiny by the Legal Services Commission of the work of its suppliers and a greater degree of control over the civil legal aid budget, according to Sir John Bourn, Head of the National Audit Office. As the new arrangements bed down, his report suggests that the Commission needs to tackle poorer performing suppliers more quickly, redouble its efforts to target resources where unmet need is greatest and communicate a clear vision for developing the supplier base.

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Today‚Äôs report to Parliament notes that the Commission has, in some cases, disallowed a significant proportion of the costs claimed on help and advice work, although in some cases these amounts have been reinstated after mediation with the supplier. Audits conducted by the Commission of case files kept by suppliers suggest that 35 per cent of suppliers were in the lowest category, that is overclaiming in excess of 20 per cent, although some suppliers have been complained about the basis of some of these decisions. The 2001-02 audit results suggest that there has been some improvement in suppliers’ performance over the previous year. However, a significant minority of suppliers have not improved. The Commission has stated its intention to remove suppliers who persistently overclaim on controlled work. The removal process currently takes a minimum of around 18 months and could be reduced although there are risks in what are relatively new procedures. More generally, the National Audit Office found that the Commission had strengthened its scrutiny of the cost of expensive cases and had successfully challenged the eligibility of some applicants seeking support.

Since the introduction of new contracting arrangements, there has been a decline in the number of solicitor firms providing legal aid services from 4,866 in January 2000 to 4,427 by July 2002. However, the number of not-for-profit forms providing services has risen from 344 to 402 over the same period. The reduction in the supplier base is partly a deliberate move away from reliance on a large number of generalist support firms towards a smaller number of specialist quality-assured providers. However, the reduction also reflects concern amongst some firms about the level of remuneration offered on civil legal aid work. The Commission has identified gaps in provision in some parts of the country, particularly in rural areas, and in some areas of law, for example family law, but has had some success in attracting suppliers to immigration work.

As part of the establishment of the Community Legal Service, the Commission has helped create a network of local Community Legal Service Partnerships bringing together suppliers and other funders of advice and information services, including local authorities. These Partnerships have the potential to play a significant role in identifying local needs and in helping to match services to meet these needs. The National Audit Office found that most organisations welcomed the creation of these Partnerships, but some suppliers expressed concern about a perceived lack of progress in helping to shape local services in some areas. The NAO note that the Department is undertaking a review of the way the Partnerships operate and this could be an opportunity to address these concerns.

"I welcome the improvements that have been made to improve scrutiny of civil legal aid expenditure. However, I urge the Commission to clamp down faster on suppliers that overclaim. The Commission needs to look closely at the current pattern of service provision to ensure that, wherever possible, gaps are addressed."

Sir John Bourn


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