On April 1, 2013 the provisions of the Legal Aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 came into force. These were the long-dreaded changes to legal aid in Britain, one of which was this, the Legal Aid Telephone Gateway. It truly is a prime piece of utter stupidity that is only explainable by absolute ineptitude on the part of the Ministry of Justice, or the fact that successive governments have had, for many years, a hate-on for lawyers who try to pull them up over things, especially when they pay lawyers to pull them up over things. That, combined with the fact that legal aid folks have had the stigma as being people who take taxpayers' money to bail out crims and dole bludgers, means that I suspect the malice argument is more likely.
Well, it's like this. For most legally aidable cases, you can simply rock up to your friendly local legal aid solicitor and they will be able to sign you up for funding - provided, of course, you can provide evidence of all income you received, three months' wage slips if you are working, three months' bank statements for all accounts you hold, details of any and all benefits you receive atop that, not to mention proof of payment of rent or mortgage, and explanations for all transactions on any bank statement over £200.00, any tax returns, and suchlike. Even then, it has to be within a permitted category of case as set out in the various regulations, and you have to have evidence that such advice is required. Got that? Good. So as you can see, it was fairly simple. This, however, clearly would not do, so this was brought in.
No longer can members of the public troll up and seek advice. Oh no. Firstly, for some types of case, they have to telephone a special phone number operated by the Legal Aid Agency, or send the Legal Aid Agency on a special e-mail address. Nowhere on any website is either this telephone number or the e-mail address stated. Of course. However, one has to ring up this number and speak to someone over the phone about one's legal problem. They will then, if they think it is serious enough, escalate it to an allegedly "trained advisor," though not qualified as any form of legal person, and only then, if they think it's serious enough to "justify" face-to-face advice, will they let us at it, and give the client a secret reference number, which is to be given to us, without which Legal Aid for these types of matter cannot be granted.
They do not state what the criteria for "justifying" face to face advice is, of course.
That's how it's supposed to work in theory. In practice, it is even more inept. Last month we had this woman come to see us who had come to us with a case. She'd gone to the Citizens' Advice Bureau who deflected her to a law centre who in turn deflected her to us. We then spent our time trying to get through. We found, after much hunting in the literature and manuals on Legal Aid, which is only given to solicitors, the number to ring, which we did, and were told that they "did not give reference numbers." Instead we had to ring the Legal Aid Agency's general enquiries line, which is where you spend 30 minutes listening to the theme from M*A*S*H (no, seriously) while you wait for a clueless Geordie woman to give you incorrect information about how they've lost your client's urgent funding application or sent it to the wrong address because they only use the house number and post code to send out their post - and because they're all illiterate cunts, they've read "London N10 7GE" as "London N10 7GF" and sent it two roads away EVEN THOUGH THE FULL ADDRESS IS ON THE FORM. But anyhow. The general enquiries line said to ring the dedicated advice line, so we told the client to go and do that, and if she had no joy, to ring us back so we could bother them some more.
Two hours later, she did just that. They said to her she was indeed eligible for Legal Aid, but to ring the general enquiries line. They did not give her a reference number. We rang then the dedicated advice line and spoke to another clueless Geordie woman. This person, contrary to what everyone had told us beforehand, said that she did not give reference numbers out over the phone and if they thought it was a "justifiable" case she would be put through to a telephonic adviser. We asked to be put through but Clueless Geordie Bitch told us to haddaway an' shite. We then asked to go through to her supervisor, and were once again told to haddaway an' shite. We asked to be put through to the complaints line and were told that someone would call us back that day.
Well, did they?
Is the Ayatollah a fan of gay rights? Did they fuck.
Two days later we got a call from a Bristolian gentleman who said he would listen to the recording of the conversation and get back to us, as we were clearly given wrong information. Note the continued failure to give a reference number.
By Thursday we were rung again to be told that actually a reference number for this client was generated all along but never given to the client at any time she rang.
Did I mention what the case was about yet? Mortgage repossession. That's right. She was facing the loss of her home over mortgage arrears in turn due in turn to redundancy (so it was hardly that she was an inveterate dole bludger) and the hearing was in four days' time from when she originally came in that Monday. Ordinarily we could easily assist with that at 4 days' notice, but not if WE ONLY GET THE REFERENCE NUMBER LETTING US DO IT ON THE MORNING OF THE HEARING.
The whole reason for this is that mortgage repossessions now fall under "debt" as a category of work, not "housing," so we have to go through this utter idiocy every time this sort of thing happens. And all the time we spent on hold to Clueless Geordie Bitch and Empty Promising Bristolian, we don't get paid for. That's time we could have spent doing fee earning work so we can get some income and thus pay the bills and thus continue to exist to represent people. I think my boss put in a formal complaint about this episode but I don't know where it went. I suspect the circular filing cabinet myself. That happens to every complaint I've put in to the LAA.
Apart from one where I was chasing three letters to them, all urgent, that had been faxed also and gone unanswered with an impending hearing. When I, exasperated, said I was following up these letters "that you people have proven unequal to the challenge of responding so in a timely matter, or at all, which quite frankly smacks of incompetence," a high mucky-muck at the LAA rang my boss and ratted me out for allegedly "verbally abusing" their staff. Despite the fact that the staffer in question objected to it not at the time.
It's times like this that I reckon that Victor Meldrew was absolutely right.