Professional Competence and the Legal Aid Peer Review Project

Professor Avrom Sherr continues work on the competence and competence assessment of lawyers working on legal aid. 2006 saw a further expansion in the areas of work covered by Peer Review. Clinical Negligence is included for the first time in an important pilot of this new subject area which is characterised by long cases and complex files. In addition very high cost cases in Criminal Law including long jury fraud cases are also being considered. The Carter proposals for changes in Legal Aid and the Legal Services Commission's approaches to Preferred Supplier options have placed considerable pressure on expanding the numbers of peer reviewers being selected and trained, as well as turning a system of assessment, which is still in relative infancy, into an operation in the style of factory production.

However, the larger banks of data which may emanate from this approach will provide further helpful information in terms of understanding what competence of legal work means in different subject categories. Already, on a qualitative basis, "Guides" have been produced in Crime, Family, Employment and Mental Health subject categories, and are being worked on in other areas of law. These intend to show to other legal aid practitioners where common problems appear to exist in work patterns reviewed. The objective is to bring all work carried out under legal aid to a good standard of competence. In order to do that, the transparency of these objectives is an important factor. Funding for this project in the last two years has amounted to over £270,000.

Major progress was achieved in fashioning a system for assessment of competence which allows input and response from lawyers who are being assessed. A process of representations of responses has been crafted, and is being piloted in order to assist the accuracy of external observer peer review reporting. The fashioning of assessment reports relating to the work of a firm or organisation in a particular subject category has also been developed further. This system, including training for the assessors in writing presentable and defensible judgements, has also been piloted. Simon Thomson, Associate Fellow of IALS worked on profiles and grading approaches to monitoring the work of the assessors.