Guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): working with clients

Our approach to working with clients and making applications.

Applies to England and Wales

The arrangements outlined here have been reviewed against the guidance set out for England and Wales by the UK and Welsh Governments in July 2021.

Unless specified, end dates set against arrangements will be kept under review. We will give 3 weeks’ notice for restart dates, on a rolling schedule for legal aid providers.

Working with clients and making applications

We understand in the current situation it may not be possible to meet clients in person. Your well-being and that of your clients is important to us. You should read the latest advice about avoiding catching or spreading coronavirus (COVID-19).

Government guidance is also available for workplaces.

Remote applications in civil work

Until Friday 31 December 2021 there is no limit to the number of remote applications that can be accepted. The contingency in relation to the acceptance of digital signatures has also been extended to 31 December 2021. We will review both contingencies on a regular basis.

Funding for Coronavirus Act appeals

Appeals to a magistrates’ court to challenge restrictions or requirements under the Coronavirus Act are not in scope for legal aid. Individuals will need to apply for exceptional case funding (ECF) for these cases.

This work is classified as ‘miscellaneous work’. This means that any provider with a 2018 Standard Civil Contract can apply for ECF under the terms of their contract.

We have created a special process for these applications. Further information can be found in our guidance for applying for exceptional case funding.

Crime telephone advice

If a client stays at home following NHS, Public Health England or Public Health Wales guidance, we would consider this a good reason for non-attendance at your office. See section 9.121 of the crime specification.

Assessing financial eligibility where a client cannot attend

The contract specification allows you in certain situations to assess means without accompanying evidence where it is not practicable to do so:

  • section 3.6 crime

  • section 3.24 civil

Where a client is staying at home, it may still be possible to collect evidence by email or post. Reasonable efforts to collect evidence should still be made and recorded, before assessing without evidence if that is not possible.

When we assess civil or crime applications under any scheme, we will exercise the same discretion as above. Providers should submit what evidence they have available and highlight any issues they have had collecting other documentation.

Using digital signatures

Digital client signatures will be acceptable as an alternative to handwritten ‘wet’ signatures and will meet our contract requirements.

The Law Society has guidance and practice notes in this area:

Signing and exchanging documents

Execution of a document using an electronic signature

We will accept all digital methods which meet the requirements outlined as Simple Contracts in the Law Society practice note.

Text messages are not considered an acceptable method of digital signature and are not covered by the Law Society.

In situations where it is not possible to directly obtain a client signature, you should make a note on the file explaining why, countersigned by a supervisor.

You should also make a note on the relevant form itself, explaining the specific reason why a signature cannot be obtained. Simply referring to COVID-19 will be insufficient.

In these circumstances, you will also be required to provide express evidence. For example, email exchanges or telephone attendance notes. The evidence needs to demonstrate one of the following:

  • the client formed the appropriate intention to sign and submit the application form, or

  • you have been directly appointed by a court or tribunal to act for the client

In order to avoid delays or issues with processing, you should seek a signature at the earliest possible opportunity.

You may still submit a claim if you are unable to secure a client signature, including a digital signature, where:

  • it is clear reasonable attempts have been made to secure the client’s signature and you have provided evidence of the client’s intention to sign the form, or

  • you have been appointed to act for a client by a court or tribunal

Application evidence requirements

We will adopt a flexible approach for certain types of evidence.

This is because we recognise some applicants may struggle, in certain circumstances, to obtain the evidence of their:

  • own or partner’s income

  • outgoings, such as mortgage statements

We will continue to accept photos or screen-shots of evidence for these if applicants provide a suitable explanation e.g. self-isolation.

We will also continue to offer extended deadlines where the impacts of COVID-19 mean the original deadline is impractical.

For civil applications, if providers have particular concerns about a client, they may request that the civil means team invoke the ‘vulnerable client’ provision.

In these instances, the case will be referred to a senior caseworker who will consider the client’s circumstances and try to complete the assessment without requesting further client information.

If further information is needed, any request would be proportionate with the eligibility risks posed by the client.

Income evidence sanctions – crime applications

Sanctions are considered where income evidence has not been provided with a client’s crime application.

However, we are clear that we will take account of issues related to COVID-19 when considering whether the client has demonstrated a ‘reasonable excuse’.

This means being appropriately flexible when considering additional expenditure evidence, for defendants on hardship applications and eligibility reviews.

Our customer services teams can assist with any deadline extension requests or other application evidence queries.

Client finances and contributions

Furlough

We understand that an applicant’s financial situation may change due to them being furloughed. If this happens, they should explain their employer’s furlough approach by notifying us of their ‘change in financial circumstances’ (CIFC).

This will allow us to reassess the client’s application and/or contribution. An applicant should also notify us if they are furloughed but have a second job – either pre-existing or new.

Applicants will need to notify the LAA about their CIFC when their furlough ends on 30 September 2021.

Self-employed applicants

We recognise that income can be varied and challenging in the current climate. Self-employed applicants should provide last year’s accounts but may also provide more recent evidence.

Applicants receiving government help via the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme Grant Extension, or who have reduced income, must explain their current circumstances. They will need to provide supporting evidence, including evidence of the grant.

If no evidence or detail is provided for any currently reduced self-employed income, then applications will be assessed as usual using the latest accounts.

If applicants are in receipt of the government grant, we will need to know how much the grant was for and when it was paid. If they are still generating income besides the grant, they should provide evidence of their monthly profit.

Applicants also need to show why the latest accounts are not appropriate for assessing their current level of income. This will allow us to be more flexible when calculating an applicant’s eligibility, or liability for an income contribution, in these exceptional times.

It is important to remind applicants that they must notify the LAA of any ‘change in financial circumstances’ (CIFCs). They will need to submit a CIFC when the grant scheme ends, or earlier if business picks up sooner

Stay up to date

If you have any questions about your contract, talk to your contract manager.

We are monitoring the situation and will update any changes to operational guidance in the first instance on our digital channels:

We will also share information with representative bodies to share with their members.

Further information

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Legal Aid Agency contingency response

Coronavirus (COVID-19): processing and payments

Coronavirus (COVID-19): contract management and assurance

Published 14 April 2020
Last updated 25 October 2021 + show all updates
  1. Coronavirus (COVID-19): working with clients - Remote applications in civil work.

  2. Updated content for legal aid providers on working with clients during the COVID-19 pandemic

  3. Edit to amend dates for extension of contingency arrangements.

  4. Edit to remove text from civil contribution collection and enforcement

  5. Edit to remove the CLA telephone line operating hours

  6. Edit to insert the application evidence requirements section.

  7. Updated to reflect the extension to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (furlough) until December, that was announced by the government on 31 October 2020.

  8. Updated to reflect changes on 1 November: * restart of collection and enforcement activity except in exceptional circumstances * change to the support schemes for employed and self employed individuals and to update the opening hours for CLA and add additional guidance

  9. Added note that from 1 October Civil Legal Advice will resume business as usual hours: 9am to 8pm Monday to Friday, 9am to 12.30pm Saturday.

  10. Updated to include guidance on self-employed applicants receiving government help via the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, or who have reduced income.

  11. Extension of reduced CLA operating hours until 31 July 2020.

  12. Civil Legal Advice change of operating hours included.

  13. Expanded guidance on using digital signatures.

  14. First published.