Legal eye: how Legal Aid Agency chief Shaun McNally prioritised staff morale while transforming the organisation
Shaun McNally is responsible for delivery in an area that has seen some of government’s most controversial reforms. The Legal Aid Agency’s chief executive tells Tamsin Rutter about reform and details his own career journey through the courts
Photography by Nik Hallen
When Shaun McNally joined the Legal Aid Agency in 2012, it was seen as something of a problem child in the Ministry of Justice family. Among the charges brought against its predecessor body, the Legal Services Commission, he lists: “Beset with delay, beset with inconsistency, very bad reputation within the provider base – the firms with whom we contract for the provision of legal aid”.
In fact, at a provider reference group meeting McNally once attended, he recalls someone telling him “with a glint in their eye, ‘Oh, you’re in for it tonight’”.
“There used to be hundreds of people that would come in and they just wanted to moan about the service that was being received,” he says, adding with pride: “That’s been transformed.”
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The Legal Aid Agency was born of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 (LASPO), which was also responsible for slicing £950m out of annual legal aid spending between 2010-11 and 2016-17. It did this largely through removing the right to free legal representation in all but the highest priority cases for areas such as divorce, welfare, housing and immigration. The creation of the LAA, which is an executive agency rather than a non-departmental public body like its predecessor, allowed for greater ministerial control of that budget. But its chief executive McNally also serves as the director of legal aid casework, a “quasi-judicial role” which gives him sole responsibility for decisions on individual legal aid applications – ensuring that aspect of LAA’s work remains independent of ministers.
McNally meets Civil Service World in the LAA’s London offices on Petty France, where it colocates with its sponsor department the Ministry of Justice and HM Courts & Tribunals Service. He says the organisation’s transformation began some years ago, when Matthew Coats, now MoJ chief operating officer, was the agency’s chief and presided over a drive to improve caseworking.
“When I came in 2012, there was a focus on making sure that we knew exactly where we were, and that we were able to map demand to resource,” says McNally, who first joined the LAA as director of case management and has long had a reputation as “a bit of a fixer”. He and Coats worked hard to get a tighter grip on “provision and management information”, to ensure staff were clear on what was expected of them, and to track and review performance “on a fairly relentless basis”, he adds.
Their efforts have paid dividends. According to the agency’s annual report, some 98% of civil applications were processed within 20 working days in 2016-17, against a target of 85%, while 95% of criminal applications were processed in two working days, against a target of 90%. The LAA’s error rate – which measures the accuracy with which legal aid applications are granted and bills paid – was 0.8%, compared with a rate of around 2% back when it was the Legal Services Commission.
A career in courts
McNally joined the civil service 32 years ago, after a brief stint as a board-marker at Ladbrokes. “I started off as an admin officer at Newcastle County Court back on 13 December 1985. Thankfully, induction has moved on a long way since then because it was clear when I knocked on that door that they’d forgotten I was coming,” he says. “I did a range of jobs and then I went into finance, performance and personnel as an exec officer.”
As an HEO he gained “a reputation as a bit of a fixer”, with a knack for tasks like dealing with process backlogs, setting up operational systems and doing bank reconciliations. When job-specific selection came in, which allowed people to go for roles of higher rank than just the one immediately above them, McNally became in 1998 one of the first people to go from HEO to Grade 7. “But in order to get the Grade 7 job I took my pregnant wife and my young daughter from the north east of England down to Wales,” he says. “Believe it or not they gave their staff Geordie responsibility for the Courts Service Welsh language scheme. So I implemented that.”
McNally says he had a “wonderful three years” in Wales, where his son was born and his career horizon – which had previously stopped at chief clerk of Newcastle County Court – broadened. “Somebody saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself at the time,” he says. “You have a little voice in the back of your head that says: ‘You cannae possibly do this’.”
He began to get sponsors including Chris Mayer, who later became HM Courts Service chief executive, and Ian Magee, then second permanent secretary in the Department for Constitutional Affairs. He also struck up a “strong working relationship” with Lord Thomas, who went on to become lord chief justice between 2013 and 2017.
McNally then moved to the north west and worked first in Lancashire and Cumbria before being promoted to area director for Merseyside following the amalgamation of magistrates’ courts committees and the Courts Service, which became HM Courts Service, and then becoming regional director for the north west of England. In 2008, he became director of operations, responsible for court estates rationalisation, and prior to joining the LAA he was director of crime for the newly monikered HMCTS.
“I’m really passionate about social mobility,” McNally says. “I say: If I can do it then anybody can.”
McNally dismisses fears that LASPO – which led to a reduction in both the number of cases and the fees available to civil legal aid providers – has put firms off legal aid work. Figures from a recent contract-bidding exercise show the LAA is “not seeing a marked decrease in the number of people who are competing as part of that tender process”, he explains.
These concerns do, however, fall within the scope of the post-implementation review that government has committed to carrying out, he adds. Due to publish its findings this year, the review will assess the impact of policies introduced under the 2012 Act and look to the future of legal support. This is being led by the legal aid policy team in the MoJ, and McNally stresses the “clear line of demarcation” between them and his staff, who are responsible only for delivery.
This means many of the factors that make the headlines on legal aid – from the impact on those denied representation to the consequences of the surge in people self-representing in court – are beyond McNally’s remit. But the agency was initially criticised for underusing the Exceptional Case Funding (ECF) grant, which provides legal aid where a failure to do so would breach rights under international law. Only 5% of applications were granted in the year following reforms.
The bar to meet that legislation was initially set too high, McNally explains, which “became clear as the scheme progressed and as a consequence of challenges through the courts”. It was brought down, and quarterly figures show that 54% of the 638 ECF applications received between July and September 2017 were granted, with a further 19% rejected due to a lack of information.
McNally stresses that applicants who are refused legal aid always have the option of referring their case to another agency staffer, and then onto a judicial review. “If there’s been a mistake, I’ll apologise for it and we’ll learn the lessons as a consequence,” he says.
One area of significant change where the chief executive can take some credit is staff satisfaction, which has soared in the past seven years despite budget cuts that include a 34% reduction in admin spend from £112m in 2010-11 to £73.4m in 2016-17, with further cuts to come. Some 15% of staff left as part of a voluntary early departure scheme in 2016, and yet the agency’s 2017 People Survey engagement score is 71%, above a civil service average of 61% and the agency’s own 2011 score of 53%. It has a particularly high score for “leadership and managing change” at 69%, which is 23 percentage points more than the civil service average. Meanwhile the number of days lost each year to sickness per employee has also dropped, from 7.2 in 2015 to five in 2017.
McNally explains how he keeps up morale: “What’s key for me is the ability for people to be involved and to engage in decisions that impact upon the way they work.”
He has made sure all staff have opportunities to share concerns and suggest improvements, whether through daily team conversations or the biannual senior leadership group visits to each of the agency’s 16 regional offices, where a “significant part of the agenda is turned over to the staff”.
However, McNally adds, “there isn’t one silver bullet for this”. It’s also about inducting people properly, offering flexible working, promoting positive mental health and work/life balance, and providing them with training and development opportunities. Leaders, he says, set the tone and have a “responsibility to create an environment that enables people to giveth their best”. McNally, a keen advocate for flexible and remote working, splits his time between London and the north west, and tries to set an example by working one day a week from home. “Technology enables you to work anywhere,” he says. “We’ve got to move away from presenteeism.”
But that’s also because the agency has moved to a 60% desking ratio and equipped staff with laptops and remote access to systems, enabling the LAA to make savings when leases come up for renewal. It is embracing the digital-by-default movement, and has shifted more than 90% of bills and applications processing online, with all criminal legal aid applications – which were brought into the agency from 123 magistrates courts in 2015 after McNally argued the LAA was better placed to make quick, quality, consistent decisions – now dealt with online.
“Technology enables you to work anywhere. We’ve got to move away from presenteeism”
“When I first came into the agency… filing cabinets were racked with paper,” he says. “That’s all gone.”
The next step is automation. The agency processes over two million transactions every year which vary in complexity, and McNally wants to move away from requiring caseworkers to spend their time on the “repetitive and mundane tasks that are prone to human error”.
He gives an example from a solicitor’s bill in a civil legal aid case: “Someone will have to check every mileage claim – physically go onto Google Maps and check the distances. The reason for that is, as accounting officer, I can’t preside over an irregular payment. So we’re starting to look at the opportunity of using assisted automation to enhance both the decision making processes but also make sure the job that people have to do is of greater value than just checking the mileage claims.”
The agency is also experimenting with automated access to government data held by other departments, and has a pilot under way on using tax information directly from HM Revenue & Customs to streamline the process of means-testing applications. It already has access to Department for Work and Pensions benefits data, and to Libra, the magistrates court case management system, while McNally says the forthcoming common digital platform for the criminal justice system will “open up opportunities that at the moment probably aren’t there”.
But the chief executive is adamant: the best results are delivered through people, and when staff understand how their work fits into the aims of the agency and the civil and criminal justice systems more broadly. “People here care for and support each other, and they’re passionate about the work that they do,” he says. “They see themselves very much at the heart of protecting and advancing the principles of justice.”
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