The Law Society is calling on the government to act immediately over the legal aid payment crisis after it emerged not-for-profit Refugee and Migrant Justice (RMJ) could face closure because of the way in which payments are made by the Legal Services Commission (LSC).
Law Society Chief Executive Desmond Hudson, quoted on the Law Society website, said:
“RMJ is one of the largest providers of legal advice on asylum and immigration issues. In an area of law where there has been a substantial decrease in the number of legal aid providers recent years, the closure of RMJ could have serious consequences for its clients who may struggle to find alternative representation and, for the principle of access to justice irrespective of the means to pay. A network of provision by practitioners and private practice Solicitors throughout the Country should be a key consideration for the LSC.
“The Law Society calls upon the new government and the LSC to urgently review the payment system to ensure that all providers can rely on being paid promptly for the work they have done, so that the essential legal aid work for vulnerable clients provided by RMJ and other providers is able to continue. A very obvious and simple step would be for the LSC to sign on Tuesday the Government’s own code on prompt payment of small businesses”
The Law Society says the RMJ’s problems are due to cash flow problems arising from the way in which legal aid is paid. Payments for most immigration and asylum cases can only be claimed at the end of the case and, because of Home Office delays, cases can last for many, many months or even years. In the meantime providers have to pay staff salaries and other overheads.
Even after claims have been submitted it can be several weeks before the LSC makes the payments and these delays have markedly worsened in recent months as the LSC has changed its policies to satisfy the recent criticism made by the NAO. The result has been longer payment delays because of increased checking requirements and insufficient numbers of staff.
The problems RMJ are experiencing are not unique (even if the specific legal aid rules causing the problems may differ from organisation to organisation) and are also affecting a large number of other legal aid providers both in private practice and the not-for-profit sector, who are having real difficulty meeting their salary bills and premises costs, and may also have to close. Compare that to MPs whose recent criticism of their own changed expenses procedures has seen immediate action to provide them with a cash float to pay their salary bills.