Annual update on the Quality Assurance Scheme for Criminal Legal Assistance


Thursday, May 05, 2016

This update provides details of the decisions taken and the findings relating to the Criminal Quality Assurance Scheme, for reviews which were considered between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2015.

It is the third annual update highlighting, in general terms, the issues and areas of good practice and the areas for improvement identified in the peer reviews considered in the 12 months.

All criminal solicitors who have registered with the the Scottish Legal Aid Board (SLAB) to provide criminal legal assistance are subject to peer review. 

The reviews are being carried out over an initial six year cycle.

The scheme is overseen by the SLAB’s Criminal Quality Assurance Committee, which comprises three members appointed by SLAB, three members appointed by the Law Society of Scotland, and three independent or lay members appointed in consultation with the Society.

During 2014/15, the following served on the Committee: 

NAME

 

DESIGNATION

Colin Lancaster (Chair)

SLAB Director of Policy and Development (Now SLAB Chief Executive)

Vincent McGovern

SLAB Board Member

Matthew Auchincloss

PDSO Director

Ian Bryce

Law Society Member (resigned July 2014)

Peter Lockhart

Law Society Member

Roddy Boag

Law Society Member

Duncan MacDonald

Lay Member

Catherine Goldie

Lay Member

Beryl Seaman CBE

Lay Member

 

The Committee receives professional advice and support from Professor Alan Paterson OBE, Director of the Centre for Professional Legal Studies at the University of Strathclyde. Professor Paterson, who is one of Europe’s leading experts on quality assurance systems in the legal profession, also provides training and oversees the work of the peer reviewers.

Further details of how the scheme operates can be found in Part 1, Chapter 3 of the Criminal Legal Aid Handbook.

Peer Reviews carried out in 2014/15

During 2014/15, the number of completed peer reviews considered by the Criminal Quality Assurance Committee, and the decisions taken by the Committee are shown in the table below, with a comparison to the previous year.   

 

 

2014/15

 

2013/14

Number of Routine Reviews considered by the Committee

222

158

 

Routine Reviews passed by the Committee

  • Reviews – competent plus
  • Reviews - competent
  • Reviews – marginal pass

205

26

162

17

130

20

100

10

Routine Reviews failed by the Committee

  • Deferred extended review
  • Immediate extended review
  • Immediate special review

11

8

3

0

10

8

1

1

 

 
Routine reviews which are passed are not normally considered again within the current six year cycle, although a sample of reviews will be conducted again within this timescale.

Reviews which are considered to be marginal passes will be reviewed again well within the period of the cycle, usually within three years.

Where a review fails, the Committee has the option to carry out a deferred extended review, usually after 6 to 9 months after the decision of the review is intimated to the solicitor. 

This is to give the solicitor a reasonable period of time to put in place improvements to address the issues highlighted in the failed review. 

However, if serious issues are identified, then the extended review can be carried out immediately. In other cases, a special review can be carried out if issues are identified which need to be given immediate consideration, but the solicitor is not advised what these issues might be.  

Of the 11 reviews which were failed during 2014/15, seven of the solicitors were sole practitioners, and four were in larger firms.  Sole practitioners had been identified as a higher risk area for the programme of reviews (along with firms with high criminal legal aid earnings).  

In three of the failed reviews, immediate special reviews were requested due to the issues identified in the initial reviews. 

In the other eight extended reviews were deferred for a period of at least 6 months to allow the solicitors to address the issues identified in the routine reviews. These extended reviews are conducted by two separate peer reviewers and take place in the office of the solicitor concerned.  

Extended and Special Reviews Considered by the Committee

Deferred Extended Reviews considered by the Committee

  • Pass
  • Fail

9

7

2

Special Reviews considered by the Committee

  • Pass
  • Fail

2

0

2


The Committee considered nine extended reviews and two special reviews during the year.  Of the extended reviews, seven subsequently passed, with clear evidence being found that the solicitors had addressed the failings highlighted in the failed routine review.  Two of the extended reviews were refused, as were the two special reviews.  These will undergo final reviews in a few months time.

Areas of Good Practice Identified in the Reviews

In the reports which are completed by the Peer Reviewers, they are asked to bring to the attention of the Committee areas of good practice which they identify as well as areas where improvement is needed.

In relation to the reviews which were subsequently passed by the Committee the following show the areas of good practice identified in the reviews:

Communications

  • Clients kept advised of all relevant procedural steps
  • Clients fully engaged in the court process
  • Clear instructions to agents
  • Detailed instructions to Edinburgh agents
  • Good Terms of Engagement letters
  • Easy to understand language used in all letters, particularly for clients with mental health issues.

File Keeping

  • Detailed file notes kept
  • Well prepared and organised files
  • Use of a checking system
  • Copies of the relevant legislation and case laws in the files
  • Good court minutes endorsed on front cover of files

Legal work

  • Good and regular contact with the PF
  • Good disposals of the case
  • Good preparation and chasing up
  • Bail issues well handled
  • Proactive steps taken to obtain medical evidence
  • Early resolutions in cases benefitting both clients and the wider justice system

Legal aid issues

  • Appropriate use of ABWOR in the case
  • Detailed legal aid applications submitted

The following are some specific quotes from the actual reviews which passed, highlighting these areas of good practice found: 

Where appropriate the solicitor will record comprehensively the narration given by the Crown: this could be important in the event of an Appeal

Solicitor is not afraid to nag the Crown……….. Solicitor is quick and efficient (and persistent) in seeking statements and information from potential defence witnesses.

Where the client has other cases the solicitor usually sends a letter which helpfully makes reference to other cases - in regard to court dates, bail issues and disposals - so much better than sending piecemeal letters.

I was impressed by the detail of the legal aid application and by the efforts to make sure that the client was brought to the right court so that a global plea could be organised.  The decision not to apply for bail was realistic with the result that the client had served his sentence by the time he appeared for the last time.  The file provided all the information that was required and demonstrated that the case had been dealt with in an efficient manner.

These are the best files I have seen so far.  They are a credit to the practitioner who is, on the evidence of these files, careful, methodical and a safe pair of hands.

Good service, good cooperation with PF and co-accused, good work!!

Sensitivity shown when dealing with child witnesses

I was really impressed with these files in particular the layout and detail contained in them and I would not hesitate to recommend this as a system for anyone to use.

Many positives but in particular the letters to clients are excellent.  They clearly set out what has happened.  In addition they advise what the solicitor will do and what is expected of the client.  The style attendance noting the clients’ responses to Crown statements are also very helpful.


Files rated as Excellent

The scoring system for each of the eight files reviewed as part of  each Routine Review is on a 1 to 5 basis with one being very poor and five being excellent. 

There were a number of files marked as excellent during the year and the reviewers gave the following comments on these files:

This is a first class criminal file. Client's instructions taken and a clear line of defence identified and investigated, with additional evidence sought from the Crown.  Excellent communication with client and PF.  Very thorough work.

This is an excellent file. Textbook work from the advice given to the client at the police station.  All notes and correspondence clear.

This is an excellent file. From the very beginning notes are regular, clear and detailed, as is all correspondence. The case was fully investigated, with all relevant areas explored and expert evidence obtained where appropriate. Excellent work.

This was an excellent file. The solicitor did a good job of representing his client's interests. All necessary work was competently carried out and recorded on file. I was particularly impressed with the work carried out by the solicitor after sentence in relation to the tagging equipment. Many solicitors would have take the view that this work was not necessary but the solicitor here did a thorough follow up job thereby looking after his client and ensuring he was not breached in relation to the ROLO.

Areas Identified in the reviews where improvement is needed

In the Peer Reviewers’ reports, the following issues were highlighted by the reviewers as areas where improvement was needed:

Communications

  • Failure to provide clients with case updates
  • Letters of instruction to clients provided sparse case details
  • No client letters on file
  • No evidence of contacting PF for disclosure
  • No attempts to chase up the case

File Keeping

  • Files lack sufficient records of the case
  • No details of the alleged crimes shown in the files
  • Files almost impossible to follow and assess

Legal Work

  • No evidence of any discussion about possible appeals
  • Witnesses not contacted for precognitions
  • Statements wrongly sent to the client
  • Very little work done at the start of the case

Legal Aid Issues

  • Significant delays in applying for legal aid
  • Inappropriate grants of ABWOR and appointed solicitor ABWOR granted incorrectly
  • Altered dates on clients mandate form
  • Legal aid mandates not completed
  • No financial information recorded on file

The following are some specific quotes from the actual reviews, highlighting the areas where improvement was needed:

Another file with a significant delay in applying for legal aid. Not apparent that there was any preparation so far as presenting the defence was concerned albeit ultimately, because of an intervening sentence in another case, the matter was discontinued.

This is a poor file. Disclosure is not requested, and despite the knowledge that the client is leaving the country, little effort is made to accelerate the diet or to properly advise the client on the implications of any non appearance, in fact he is told the solicitor will deal with matters on his behalf, and no effort seems to be made to do so.

Very little seems to have been done at the start of this case and the instructions taken the day before the trial to plead guilty do not appear to have been intimated to PF. There was a home visit and I can not see why this is necessary.

This file is almost impossible to assess. There is nothing on the file indicating that this agent appeared initially and nothing saying who did. There is no breach report, though it is clear the breach was accepted. There is no initial correspondence on the file. No record.

Issues to note when being asked for files for a routine review

Legal Aid Online Mandates

Please ensure that the files contain copies of the legal aid online mandates, signed and dated by both the client and the solicitor. Failure to include the mandates in the files may result in further correspondence and the potential failing of files. In summary criminal cases, the files should also contain details of the client’s defence to the charge(s), either on the mandate, or on a copy of the online application, or in a separate precognition. Copies of the online applications are very helpful to the reviewers, as are copies of the legal aid accounts in solemn, criminal appeals, and other non fixed fee cases. 

Electronic Files

Many firms use a Case Management System where documents are stored electronically rather than in hard copy. It is not practicable for security reasons for reviewers to have access  to your systems, therefore if you do store papers electronically you will need to print off any relevant correspondence or papers that you think will be required so that the reviewer can carry out a review on the files selected.

Letters of Engagement

If it is not your normal practice to include letters of engagement in your files, please provide a copy for the reviewer and send it along with the files.

Linked Files

If one of the files selected for review is linked to another file which has not been selected, you may think that this file may be of use to the reviewer.  If this is the case, then this linked file can be included as well.  In the case of criminal appeal cases, if matters in relation to the appeal such as any advice given on the prospects of success are contained within the initial case file, then you should also include this information with the appeal file to assist the reviewer.

Status of files selected for review

We do not normally conduct reviews on current files or files for cases which are still outstanding. Therefore, we select files from SLAB’s systems based on cases where an account has been received, which normally indicates that a case has been completed. However, should a case selected still be live, please let us know so that substitute files can be selected.

Further information

If you would like further information please contact:

  • Kingsley Thomas – Head of Criminal Legal Assistance, Tel – 0131 240 2085, thomaski@slab.org.uk
  • Edith Cook – Criminal QA Co-ordinator, Tel – 0131 240 2000, cooked@slab.org.uk


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