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Legal Aid Agency Disputes ‘Late Payments’ Said To Risk Law Centre’s Future

Published on: 31 May, 2013
Updated on: 3 Jun, 2013
The Surrey Law Centre in Chertsey Street Guildford, which gives free legal advice, says its future is in jeopardy

The Surrey Law Centre in Chertsey Street, Guildford, which gives free legal advice, says its future is at risk because of ‘late payments’ from a government agency.

By Victoria Lazarevic

The Surrey Law Centre, which gives free legal advice and has Anne Milton MP as one of its patrons, is claiming that its future is in jeopardy because of nearly £50,000 of  “late payments” owing from the government’s Legal Aid Agency (LAA).

But a Ministry of Justice spokesman when asked whether they accept payments owed to the law centre are late replied: “No we don’t. All the bills are within target.”

The LAA, an executive agency within the Ministry of Justice, pays money to The Surrey Law Centre to meet the cost of the advice provided by specialist lawyers to vulnerable, disadvantaged people, entitled to legal aid, who can’t afford the cost of consulting a solicitor privately.

The Ministry of Justice, in common with other government departments, has a target of paying bills within 30 days. When asked whether there were any outstanding payments still owed to the centre, the spokesman replied: “No.”

The spokesman stated: “We recently met with Surrey Law Centre and they praised us for the speed with which we pay bills and also confirmed all the bills they’ve submitted are within our target.  We have not changed our approach to paying bills for legal aid work and are paying bills within our target of 30 days.”

Laura Melbourne from the Surrey Law Centre, located in Chertsey Street, Guildford, said she was “aghast” at quotes  she had read: “Absolutely do we have money outstanding to us. Opening, assessing and responding to a file we send to them within the target time of 30 days, is not the same as paying it.”

Steve Blunt the Chairman of Trustees at the Surrey Law Centre in a letter to the LAA dated 29 May 2013 wrote: “I am writing to you to raise very significant concerns as to LAA processes which threaten the future of the Centre in Surrey. In large part, this is due to changes in the way the LAA is responding to claims submitted. As you might expect, we operate to very fine financial tolerances employing a team of solicitors on hourly rates of between £46 and £60 per hour. Essentially, we rely on ‘top up’ charitable donations and grants to stay in business and meet our charitable objectives.

“Due to an unprecedented increase in what can only be described as spurious queries, seemingly designed to delay payment for both certificated and legal help exceptional cost claims over recent months, the amount owing to us has steadily increased to a level that is making it untenable for us to remain in business as a legal services provider, even taking into consideration charitable donations and grants…

“The Centre’s deteriorative cash flow situation due to these issues is forcing us into a position where the Board of the Centre must consider a wind down of its operations and handing back contracts undertaken for the LAA. This will cause redundancies, in a charity that is fundamentally sound with asset values well in excess of our liabilities…

“We have raised these issues with the Cabinet Office and the Ministry of Justice in the context of a proposal for new methods of financing civil Legal Aid contracts to focus on outcomes. While our proposals make obvious sense, there seems to be confusion between the views of the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice respectively. This situation is almost Kafkaesque in its absurdity.”

The Law Centre has already suffered the withdrawal this year of a grant of nearly £30,000 from Guildford Borough Council.  A spokesperson for GBC read: “Each application is assessed and scored by a panel and on this occasion Surrey Law Centre did not meet the required level for funding in 2013/14… being awarded a grant in one year does not guarantee funding in future years, as the number of applications and amount of funding available changes.”

Cllr Sarah Creedy, Lead Councillor for Housing and Social Welfare said: “We always get more applications to the panel than the funding available. We therefore strive to operate a fair and objective assessment of each application. The Surrey Law Centre was not the only voluntary organisation to have its application turned down, and refusal of grant funding should not be seen as any reflection on the good work they do.”

Following enquiries made by the Guildford Dragon NEWS the Surrey Law Centre received a phone call from the Legal Aid Agency offering to go through the details of its complaints. The centre say that it plans to keep the pressure on to make sure the payments are made.

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