Community Legal Service:
Contracts in the Not for Profit Sector
Many agencies in the not for profit sector (e.g. law centres, Citizens Advice Bureaux) are now providing a case work service to clients via contracts with the Legal Services Commission. How do these work and are there any implications for lawyers and advice workers with disabilities?
The Legal Services Commission (LSC for short) is at pains to point out that the contract they make is with the agency and not with any individual employed by that agency. The LSC contracts with the agency for the latter to deliver a number of hours of advice/case work to clients who pass the Community Legal Service (CLS) means test. The money paid includes allowances for management, supervision and administration but the case worker needs to be able to demonstrate that they personally have clocked up per working day 5 hours of "billable" work e.g. face to face advice, composition of letters etc. Work done has to be recorded in six minute units. Allowance is made for a total period of 8 weeks per year when the
case worker is not expected to be at their desk working. This does not give much time for paid holidays, bank holidays, training days, sickness and other disasters such as office burglaries, computers crashing, clients not arriving, public transport problems etc.
Do these contracts have implications for lawyers and advice workers with disabilities?
The CLS Support Project of the Advice Services Alliance (an umbrella organisation for advice agencies) has recently started to email to their members bulletins which give details of the remedial action the LSC " might take against your organisation if it is underperforming against contract." For instance in the event of an underperformance ( e.g. the case worker not clocking up enough hours) the LSC can reduce the
quarterly payments they make to the agency. It is clear that the LSC is most anxious to only pay the agencies in respect of actual work done.
There is a complicated set of allowances which the agency can apply for in writing in certain circumstances and one of the criteria to obtain the benefit of same can be to show " good reason" (an undefined term) for the underperformance. The LSC do give staffing issues, including sickness, as one of the examples of what might amount to "good reason" for the underperformance. However despite the existence of the allowances, it would appear that not for profit agencies are suffering adverse effects because of the above system. Anne Lewis, Policy Director at the Advice Services Alliance, says that the feedback from advice agencies indicates that there are three main reasons for not for profit agencies not meeting their targets. These are difficulty in staff recruitment to work under CLS contracts, maternity leave and sickness absence.
What could be the result of the above situation? It is common for not for profit agencies to provide in contracts of employment for up to six month paid sick leave if the employee becomes sick. Although some of this expense can be recouped via statutory sick pay, the agency will still usually be left short and probably would not be able to employ a locum to perform the hours in the absence of the case worker. If the absent caseworker is being funded via an LSC contract then the agency could end up having to pay money back to the LSC because the case work targets have not been met. Could this lead to a redundancy situation? Alternatively does this amount to a disincentive for not for profit agencies to employ anyone who might ever be sick? If so, are LSC contracts of this sort complying with the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act even if they cannot be said to amount to an actual breach of its provisions?
Central government appears to want advice services to be delivered to badly off members of the public. However by putting a fence between themselves and the case worker, in the form of the not for profit agencies, it is arguable that they are escaping responsibility for case workers who become ill.