The Legal Aid Agency (LAA) has been told that it should compensate a law centre after it “unreasonably delayed reaching decisions”, meaning the charity ended up £50,000 out of pocket.
Findings of an investigation by the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman, announced this morning, said the Legal Aid Agency treated a law centre unfairly by not processing applications quickly enough.
In 2017, the centre was providing legal representation to three EU citizens living in the UK who the Home Office had decided to deport because they were sleeping rough.
Eventually the centre won all three cases, but delays to processing applications for legal aid meant the centre had to self-fund part of the appeals.
Furthermore, when the agency did grant legal aid, it said it could not back-date the certificate. This meant there was £50,000 that the charity could not recoup.
‘LAA should apologise’
The ombudsman recommended that the LAA apologise to the law centre, pay the costs the centre was unable to recoup and review its processes to make sure they provide fair outcomes for all.
Rob Behrens, ombudsman, said: “Access to justice through legal representation is a fundamental right. Whatever their circumstances, individuals must be able to hold public bodies to account, challenge unfair processes, and defend their human rights through the justice system.
“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.”
‘Not an isolated incident’
The Law Centres Network, a membership body for law centres said this was not an isolated case.
Julie Bishop, director of the Law Centres Network, said: “We welcome the Ombudsman’s finding of maladministration by the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). This is not an isolated incident: many law centres and other legal aid providers face delayed decisions by LAA.”
She criticised the culture at the LAA, and complained that this creates additional burdens for law centres.
“In our experience, these problems stem from a working culture within the LAA, and has nothing to do with protecting the public purse. 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.”