As a result of sustained lobbying by the Law Society and our robust response to a consultation issued by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA), the Society has succeeded in obtaining some significant concessions in respect of the '14-hour' rule in the legal aid contract. In particular, the LAA has agreed to widen the scope of the work that may be counted towards the 14 hours.
The Society is pleased to see that the LAA have listened to our arguments and will include the following in the 14-hour rule:
- Crown Court advocacy
- VHCC work
- Work performed for a client in cross-examining a witness under section 38 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999
- Privately-paid criminal defence work that would count towards the 14-hour requirement if it were funded under legal aid
- Armed Forces legal aid work.
The LAA issued a limited consultation proposing widening the scope of the 14-hour requirement and introducing new guidance on the rule. The Society did not consider that the LAA proposals went far enough to alleviate the difficulties that many duty solicitors are finding in meeting the 14-hour rule.
The requirement for duty solicitors to undertake a minimum of 14 hours 'contract work' per week was introduced in 2017 as a way of ensuring a minimum commitment to the firm that is awarded the duty slot, and removing 'ghost' solicitors from the duty rotas. The representative bodies all understood the 14-hour requirement to equate to the 'two day' rule in the previous guidance. However, it had been interpreted in a far more rigid manner by the LAA.
Unfortunately, many duty solicitors who work part time have been caught by an overly rigid interpretation of the rule by the LAA, with a number of them losing their duty slots and even their employment as a result.
We are glad to see that the LAA has taken on board many of our suggestions, including making a commitment to taking a more 'purposive' approach to auditing, and that the 14-hour rule should not be the only consideration, with each case to be judged on its own merits.
Our specific requests included:
- A more flexible assessment being undertaken over a longer period, eg 3 to 6 months, rather than solicitors being required to meet the requirement every single month.
- Part-time duty solicitors working two days a week and meeting all of the other requirements to be treated in a more holistic way, with all of their work being looked at to assess whether they are genuine duty solicitors or not, and not only their compliance with the 14-hour rule.
- Firms to be allowed to include a certain amount of private work within the 14 hours - given that this is the same work as that undertaken for legal aid clients, and that these cases may be used to meet the attendance requirements in clause 6.22 of the contract specification. Many firms were faced with the prospect of having to turn down more lucrative private cases - often essential for the sustainability of the firm - for fear of not being able to meet the 14-hour requirement.
- A more flexible approach being taken to the inclusion of a certain amount of supervision and file review within the 14 hours.
- A more flexible approach to be taken to rural areas where there may be insufficient work to comply with the 14-hour rule.