There are relatively few peer reviews carried out every year, but you need to be prepared to respond quickly with selected files if requested. It’s not necessarily a bad sign, as most peer reviews are selected randomly, although some are as a result of Legal Aid Agency (LAA) contract manager concerns.
If your organisation scores ‘excellence’ (1), or ‘competence plus’ (2), the peer reviewer’s report will contain praise for your team’s legal work, which makes everyone feel good. Your organisation must be assessed at ‘threshold competence’ (3) or above in order to continue to hold a contract with the LAA. This is the result achieved by most practices, although some need a second try.
A score of ‘below competence’ (4) or ‘failure in performance’ (5) is seen as failing to meet the requirement that work is performed with reasonable skill, care and diligence, and your contract will be at risk. If you fail peer review, the costs of the peer review can be recovered from you12018 Standard Civil Contract and 2017 Standard Crime Contract Standard Terms clause 10.8.
(likely to be around £1,400). However, at level 4 you will be given at least six months to put things right before a second review, which can overturn and replace the initial result.
The LAA’s peer review system is based on research by the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies.2Independent peer review process document, LAA, June 2017, para 2.1, page 5.
Solicitors in private practice or not-for-profit agencies work for the LAA on a freelance basis to assess the quality of work on a small number of files (usually 12 per category). Peer reviewers must have 1,500 hours’ post-qualification experience in their category of law, as well as significant experience of supervision and legal aid contract work.3Independent peer review process document, para 3.7, page 12.
Their own files must score 1 or 2 at peer review.4Independent peer review process document, para 3.11, page 13.
What do peer reviewers look for?
Peer review is not a tick-box exercise, but a structured analysis by one professional of another’s work. The reviewer considers whether they could pick up the file and run the case, and whether they would refer a friend or family member to the organisation. They look for:
•whether the caseworker has sufficient training and experience to deal with the case;
•good communication skills;
•whether instructions are taken in sufficient detail;
•whether clients are receiving sufficient/correct advice;
•whether it is being delivered in a timely and appropriate manner;
•whether all the work is done that needs to be done;
•whether ethical and professional standards are being maintained;
•whether caseworkers are making sufficient use of prompts, templates, pro forma documents, etc (and whether they are used appropriately); and
•whether caseworkers are sufficiently proactive, particularly in seeking disclosure and pursuing the alternative disposal of cases.
Tips for passing peer review
•Discuss it in a team meeting.
•Use it to inform your file reviews.
•Look out for consistency between team members – one or two poor files can result in failure.
•Check your files before you submit them – whether electronically or in hard copy.
•Make it as easy as possible for the reviewer to find their way around the file and key evidence.
•Case recording is critical – if something is not on the file, you won’t get credit for it. This can be particularly important in relation to emails.
•If there are several relevant files, send them all.
•If you think the way you ran the file might seem odd to an outsider, there is no harm in writing a covering note to explain why you did what you did.
What to do if you fail first time
Representations go back to the peer reviewer who failed you, moderated by an experienced colleague. It is rare for an appeal to be successful, unless the peer reviewer has missed evidence on the file or you can produce convincing expert evidence that they have made mistakes in law or procedure. If it’s a ‘fair cop’, you need to act on the peer reviewer’s recommendations, which will enable you to achieve a better result. It is not unusual to go from ‘below competence’ to ‘competence plus’ at the second attempt.