“Reforming” the Legal Aid Agency

Civil service pay has fallen behind other comparable public-sector rates by a shocking 10% since 2010. Since the Ministry of Justice is one of the worst paying civil service departments, we are currently facing something of a staff retention crisis in the Legal Aid Agency (LAA). We are losing some very capable and long-serving colleagues, especially to HMRC and the Home office, but also to the DWP and the Insolvency Service.

Recruitment in many areas of the Legal Aid Agency is currently limited to using employment agencies. The uncertainty created by the “agile” agency transformation programme (ATP) means instructions have been given not to hire staff on fixed-term or permanent contracts, although there are exceptions with roles requiring significant training, e.g. customer service team members who need to learn casework and billing skills.

There isn’t more news on the ATP yet, although we are expecting to hear about “organisational design” in the LAA from the employer very soon. It is certain that the main brunt of the changes is expected to impact on the civil side of the LAA, particularly billing. Automation, digitalisation and electronic information sharing are among the chief methods whereby mundane repetitive tasks are sought to be eliminated from everyday working methods. No doubt reducing headcount will be the main method of delivering the £11 million savings the LAA wants to make by 2020. Platitudes about no need for any redundancies have been mouthed, but no firm assurances have been given. PCS will give no ground in seeking protection for members.

Overall and by comparison with some of the stories we hear from colleagues in HMCTS, the LAA seems on balance to maintain some of the more pleasant working environments and cultures within the MoJ. That said, there have been the usual pockets of low scores in the Civil Service People Survey 2018, giving rise to a few welcome initiatives seeking to remedy matters. Conditions akin to the “dark satanic mills of our times” can easily develop, especially where Key Performance Indicators are used brainlessly and in the call centre environments that are increasingly being developed.

Let’s hope that all the positive developments in engagement, well-being, diversity, inclusion, social mobility and flexible working amount to more than just some attractive trimming around the edges of what looks like a brutal, impersonal and uncaring justice “reform” programme.

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