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Potential Pitfalls in SQM Audits

Firms applying for a contract as part of the forthcoming Crime Tender will either need to be LEXCEL accredited or they will need to hold the Legal Aid Agency's Specialist Quality Mark (SQM) by the contract start date in February 2015. The service itself is expected to commence on 1st July 2015.

If firms are seeking to rely on the SQM, it is worth noting that all SQM audits have been undertaken by the SQM Delivery Partnership since 2010. If a firm already holds the SQM but it has not been audited by the SQM Delivery Partnership, they will need to ensure that they fully pass the post SQM audit by the service commencement date.

New legal entities will need to pass the desktop audit by the start of the contract, but will also need to have fully passed the pre SQM audit within 6 months of the service start date.

Accordingly, it is only organisations that obtained their SQM and have had an on-site audit from the SQM Delivery Partnership post February 2012 that will require no further audit before the start of the new contracts.

When preparing for your audit, there are a number of key areas to keep an eye on as organisations often get caught out.

• File Reviews

Frequency
When conducting file reviews, it is important to ensure that the correct number of reviews are carried out. This will depend upon the level of experience of the individual, the category of law and also upon what is documented in the organisation's Office Manual.
The following guidelines are provided as part of the SQM standard guidance for the number of file reviews:

Experience of Individual

Number of files to review (per person, per category), per month

Number of files to review (per person, per category), per quarter

Experienced Category Supervisor

1

3

Category Supervisor (for less than 2 years)

1 - 2

3 - 6

Experienced Caseworker in the category (over two years' experience)

2

4 - 8

Caseworker in the category ( 1 to 2 years' experience)

3

6-10

Trainee/Probationer

3-4

8-15


Whilst the above is only guidance for most, organisations undertaking criminal legal aid cannot choose to audit fewer than the minimum number of files required regardless of file review findings i.e. 1 per Supervisor (N.B see the new, recently published, LAA Crime Supervisor declaration) per month and 2 per month for non-supervisors.
At least 50% of file reviews per quarter in Crime must be face to face.

It is also important to ensure that your process is accurately documented in your Office Manual, and that you comply with the procedure. If the minimum level required is to conduct 1 file review per month, set your procedure to reflect this. If you are able to conduct a higher number of reviews, then this is an added bonus.

Corrective Actions

Organisations will often complete the required number of file reviews, but not properly follow up to ensure corrective actions are completed and within a reasonable timescale. It is an important part of the file review procedure and it is therefore useful to have a robust system for monitoring that corrective actions are chased up by the file reviewer and completed by the fee earner.

Monitoring Trends

Both positive and negative trends should be monitored. It is good practise to document the findings of such monitoring as an auditor will want to see evidence that action has been taken where negative trends are identified to improve performance.

• Complaints

It is important to remember the LAA's definition of a complaint is "any expression of client dissatisfaction, however it is expressed". Therefore the word complaint need not be used by the client to make it one. The best way to monitor complaints is by keeping a central complaints record. This will assist in ensuring all complaints are dealt with promptly and all of the information required for the annual review is kept in one place.
It is also a good idea to appoint an ‘alternative' complaints handling partner/director, in case the complaint from a client relates to that Partner/Director.

• Training Requirements for all Fee Earners

It is important to remember that there are training requirements of 6 hours per year for all caseworkers as part of the SQM - not just for those with a legal qualification. Additionally, it must be CPD accredited unless it can be justified on one or two limited grounds.

Organisations undertaking criminal legal aid work need to be able to show that 100% of all qualifying training is in the relevant category of law (on other areas of law it is at least 50% of all qualifying training).

• Training Records and Individual Training and Development Plans

A requirement often missed is that training records are required for all employees - not just fee earners. Accordingly, support staff training records should be made available for inspection during the audit.

In addition to training records, for SQM, each individual must have a training and development plan. This should indicate what training is to be arranged over the forthcoming year, and importantly WHY this training is appropriate to the individual and the PURPOSE of the training. Ensuring that the plans are as personalised will assist with this.
The plan itself should also be a document that is amended throughout the year as and when necessary - for example as a result of supervision sessions or file reviews findings.

Should you require any advice or assistance in preparing for a forthcoming audit, please do not hesitate to contact us.