The LSA has issued the key messages for legal aid suppliers for March 2021.
Clients in Northern Ireland who are under the jurisdiction of the English Parole Board
If you have a client in a prison in Northern Ireland who wishes to be represented by a local solicitor before the English Parole Board you should apply for authority to do so from the Legal Aid Agency.
As detailed in paragraph 8 in February 2021 key messages, LSA were made aware that a number of users had been experiencing performance issues with LAMS. These performance issues have now been resolved.
Whilst we initially received sporadic reports from a handful of users advising of performance issues we only became aware of how widespread the problem was when a considerable number of users reported similar issues. This then allowed us to escalate the priority of the issue, initiate an investigation and take remedial action.
We are committed to ensuring that LAMS provides a smooth and reliable service but in order to achieve this we are dependent on all users reporting any performance issues they encounter as soon as they experience them.
We understand that it may not always be possible to raise the issue as it happens but it would assist us in identifying and investigating the issue if you can raise it as soon as it occurs providing details of the user, the issue, what the user was trying to do when the issue occurred and the time it occurred. This will allow us to check system logs and investigate the issue in ‘real time’.
Financial eligibility – passport benefits
Practitioners are asked to exercise care when selecting the passport benefit of which their client is receipt of on LAMS. Occasionally, a benefit is selected and when the Financial Eligibility Unit (FEU) conduct our checks it appears that the client is in receipt of a different passport benefit. While we appreciate that this will not change the applicant’s financial eligibility it causes us issues in relation to the data which we are required to capture.
It is not possible for the either the supplier or Agency staff to amend the passport benefit chosen once it has been selected.
Therefore, from the date of publication of this message, where an application is made and an incorrect passport benefit is selected the following process will apply:
- A message will be sent to the supplier indicating that the benefit selected is not in payment and we will advise which benefit is currently in payment.
- The request will be withdrawn and closed, meaning that no further requests can be submitted.
- A new application request will need to be submitting, using the correct benefit. This request will be processed in the usual way.
Interpreters - Zoom consultations & confirmation of session from practitioners
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been an increased need for remote interpreting facilities including telephone and zoom consultations. Third party suppliers have adapted services to meet these requirements and have done so successfully. The Agency has also had to make some changes to continue to provide this facility whilst ensuring continued compliance with audit requirements.
Historically, when a face-to-face interpreting consultation took place, the interpreter asked the practitioner to verify the details on the timesheet and sign it. This was a requirement of the Agency to facilitate payment to the third party supplier payment could not be processed without it.
As a zoom consultation takes place remotely it is not possible for the practitioner to sign the timesheet and the Agency now requires the Practitioner to email confirmation of the session taking place giving details of the job number, the Agency’s reference number and the duration of the consultation. This information should be forwarded immediately after the consultation to email@example.com.
It is imperative that this is done to enable payments to be made to third party suppliers during this time of uncertainty and to keep cash flow to businesses to allow them to remain viable and allow them to continue to provide this service.
Failure to comply with this request may result in the withdrawal of authority for Zoom consultations.
Interpreter expense codes
Practitioners are reminded to use the correct expense codes when submitting interpreter requests on LAMS. The interpreter only expense code should NOT be used but the options of telephone, face-to-face (to include Zoom calls), telephone, translation and sign language should be selected with the requisite language (where applicable). This enables the Agency to monitor the usage of the third party suppliers and is required for management information purposes. By selecting the correct expense codes, it also reduces the number of queries and/or resubmissions thus reducing delay.
Interpreters late requests
The Agency are receiving a high volume of requests for interpreters at short notice. Whilst it is appreciated that on occasions this is unavoidable, it should only be in exceptional circumstances and a good reason should be provided for the short notice. The Agency requires a minimum of 48 hours’ notice for routine requests and 30 minutes for urgent requests. This is to allow sufficient time to process the request and provide notice to the third party supplier. The Agency should be notified of the urgent requests via the dedicated interpreter’s mailbox: firstname.lastname@example.org as well as submitting the request on LAMS. Please ensure full details are provided in the request to avoid delay in processing and provide full reasons to substantiate urgency. Late requests submitted without any reasons will not be treated or processed as urgent.
Verifying capital in advice and assistance applications
Applicants for advice and assistance who are in receipt of passport benefits are also required to meet the capital test as set out in Regulation 6(2) of the Civil Legal Services (Financial) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015.
Currently the Agency do not require verification to be uploaded to confirm an applicant’s capital for the relevant assessment period as it is for the solicitor, as the assessing authority for advice and assistance, to satisfy themselves in relation to same.
However, from the date of publication of this message, the Agency will now require such verification to be uploaded with each application. This is to ensure that a full audit trail is available on LAMS in relation to the applicant’s eligibility.
Where an application is received without verification of capital for the relevant period it will be returned under query and a response will be expected within 21 days. If no response is received the application request will be withdrawn.
Pace remote interview initiative
As advised in July 2020 Key messages an initiative was trialled by the PSNI to test the suitability of carrying out PACE interviews remotely. The pilot was initially accessed by a limited number of clients from three Belfast based solicitor firms in order to test the system.
The project was rolled out from 29 September 2020 to include all suspects and solicitors connected with offences committed in the Belfast Policing Area, although the decision as to the appropriateness of a virtual voluntary attender interview rests with the PSNI investigating officer.
Practitioners when applying for advice and assistance support for PACE should select the matter “PACE – remote interview” listed. Any application received with the incorrect matter will be rejected and a fresh application and request for payment under the correct matter will need to be made.
Supplier and business re-registration
Included in February 2021 Key messages was a reminder about the re-registration of both individual and business LAMS accounts. This will take place between 1 and 30 June 2021. Any accounts not registered by 30 June 2021 will automatically expire and you will no longer be able to submit new application requests.
Practitioners should continue to ensure that both business and individual account details are correct including contact details. If you need to update any of your details this can be done by using the View and modify my details (individual accounts) and Account administrator business management (business accounts). Further information on modifying account details can be found in the LAMS supplier manual.
Further details and guidance on the re-registration process be issued in due course.
Criminal exceptionality- supporting documentation
Representatives continue to submit applications for certificates of exceptionality without the required paperwork which is leading to an increased level of queries and delays as a result. As per paragraph 6 of LSA Circular 13/2020 the applicant should ensure that they upload, as a supporting document to the request, the charge sheet/bill of indictment and list of witnesses and list of exhibits. Applications received without the relevant supporting documentation cannot be processed, they will be queried and returned to the practitioner and go to the back of the queue for processing.
Applications for advice and assistance and representation lower on behalf of minors
Regulation 8 of the Civil Legal Services (General) Regulations (NI) 2015 sets out the conditions under which applications for legal aid will be processed in relation to children and patients, including a discretion under 8(7) to disapply any requirement set out in the Regulation.
Regulations 17(3) and (4) of the Civil Legal Services (Financial) Regulations (NI) 2015 confirm that where a minor seeks advice and assistance or representation lower the means assessment will be based on the resources of their parents/guardians unless, having regard to all the circumstances, it appears inequitable to do so.
1. Where an application is received from a minor seeking advice and assistance or representation lower the Agency will require:
- A declaration signed by the parent/guardian (including corporate parent) of the child; or
2. Where the minor is considered to be competent or is financially independent from their parents/guardians a declaration signed by the minor, with details representations from the solicitor as to why the discretion in Regulation 8(7) of the General Regulation should apply;
- Full details of the parent/guardians financial position for the assessment period; or
3. Where the solicitor seeks the exercise of the Regulation 17(4) to disregard, detailed representations as to why it is inequitable to assess the minor on the basis of their parents/guardians means.
Any applications received from minors which do not comply with the above will be returned under query and a response will be expected within 21 days failing which the request will be withdrawn.
Financial eligibility in cross border disputes
Practitioners are reminded that Regulation 9 of the Civil Legal Services (Financial) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015 was repealed by The Civil Legal Aid (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019.
As a consequence, the provisions of Article 5(4) of the Legal Aid Directive 2003/8/EC no longer applies. Therefore, the Agency can only assess an applicant’s means against the provisions of the 2015 Financial Regulations meaning that we will no longer recognise any benefit for passporting purposes other than those set out therein and further that the Agency has no basis for considering any differences in the cost of living as was previously permitted.
Any application from an applicant outside of the jurisdiction will therefore need to be accompanied by full financial details and proofs to allow the Agency to apply the relevant means test.
Notes to editors:
- Magilligan and Hydebank prisoners prize winners in major writing competitions 14 May 2021
- Key messages for legal aid suppliers - April 2021 07 May 2021
- Consultation on ‘Improving the Experiences of Victims and Witnesses in the Criminal Justice System’ launched 05 May 2021
- Long launches Consultation on Legal Aid for Mediation in Non-Family Civil Cases 04 May 2021