The government agency tasked with handing out legal aid has been slammed by charity leaders and the parliamentary and health service ombudsman after delays left a Law Centre charity £50,000 out of pocket.
In its complaint to the ombudsman, the Law Centre charity involved said that the Legal Aid Agency (LAA) had delayed decisions around awarding aid for three of its clients, who were EU nationals found rough sleeping and facing deportation.
These delays in the case, which took place in 2017, caused the charity losses of around £50,000, which it was unable to recoup, the ombudsman found.
In upholding the complaint, the ombudsman said the LAA had “unreasonably delayed reaching decisions on the legal aid application”.
It added that the charity’s clients had been “locked out of accessing the justice system to challenge deportation orders because of conflicting government procedures and lengthy delays”.
It also found that the Agency’s procedures for deciding on applications and its interpretation of legal aid legislation “led to an unfair situation”.
“The Legal Aid Agency should have done something to address that unfairness – not to have done so was maladministration,” added the ombudsman.
Law Centres Network director Julie Bishop welcomed the ombudsman’s decision and said the LAA’s maladministration “is not an isolated incident”.
“Many Law Centres and other legal aid providers face delayed decisions by LAA, she said.
“In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA, and have nothing to do with protecting the public purse,” she added,
“In effect, it restricts access to legal aid, making it harder for lawyers to launch legal action with confidence and for people to resolve their legal problems.
“The result is that it piles pressure on legal aid providers. All this runs against the very purpose of the Legal Aid Agency. We call on them to fix it now.”
"Not an isolated incident... [and] nothing to do with protecting the public purse": read our response to @PHSOmbudsman's finding of maladministration at @LegalAidAgency, obstructing access to #LegalAid for 3 vulnerable Law Centre clients https://t.co/5CfD7Vpguu— Law Centres Network (@LawCentres) November 3, 2021
The ombudsman Rob Behrens added: “In this case, service failings essentially resulted in one government body blocking individuals from challenging the decisions of another.
“This sets a dangerous precedent and shows how vulnerable citizens’ rights can be when faced with ineffective and discriminatory government policies.
“Government departments and agencies must make sure that nobody is unfairly disadvantaged by their processes.”
He has asked the LAA to apologise to the Law Centre charity, pay its costs that it has been unable to recoup and review its processes “to make sure they provide fair outcomes for all”.
The LAA is an executive agency sponsored by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ).
An MoJ spokesperson told Charity Times that "we’ve made significant improvements to speed up the system and payments can now be backdated to ensure claimants get the support they need.
“We have noted the Ombudsman’s report and will carefully consider its findings.”
Rules were changed in February 2019 to allow for payments to be backdated, according to the MoJ, which added that last year 92% of civil applications were processed within 20 working days, up by 1% on the previous year.